04 April 2011

About fundraising: Give me a break.

I don't want to hear about fundraising right now, although in my current mood I'm tempted to say "ever again."

I'm entirely in favor of procuring operating revenue for nonprofits, and I have nothing but praise for executive directors who realize that they are the (de facto) chief development officers of their organizations. Likewise, an outstanding director of development is a prodigy who has mastered both the art and the science of raising money. No problem with that.

So this isn't an attack on money or the people who raise it for nonprofits; it's a rant about the idea that fundraising is the most salient characteristic of nonprofits.

Here's a little free association exercise. What follows are two different versions, one for civilians, and one for nonprofit professionals.

Tell me what images the following phrases evoke for you.

For members of the general public:
Salvation Army.
(Is it bell ringers asking for donations on street corners?)

Doing "charity work."
(Is it donating money and persuading others to donate money?)

United Way.
(Is it money for nonprofit organizations automatically donated from your paycheck?)

(Is it Bill Gates giving away large sums of money for good causes?)

Muscular Dystrophy Association.
(Is it an apparently interminable fundraising telethon on Labor Day weekend?)
For nonprofit professionals:
(Is it a strategy for turning your organization's well-wishers into donors?)

Outcomes measurement.
(Is it a strategy for persuading grantmakers to continue giving you money?)

Social media.
(Is it new strategy for raising money?)

Community engagement.
(Is it something you gauge by per capita charitable giving?)

Alexis de Tocqueville.
(Is he the guy you have to mention in after-dinner speeches to make everyone feel like being a dues-paying supporter of a community-based organization connects them with a great, uniquely American tradition?)

Of course, all of the aforementioned mean so much more than giving money. For example, the word "philanthropy" has a 2,500-year history; the use of the word to connote "making a donation" is relatively recent.(1) As for "engagement," remember when that was the entire point of a nonprofit organization, rather than the latest trick for getting suckers to give you some money?

If we don't start acting like nonprofit organizations have a mission beyond fundraising, they are all going to go the way of the March of Dimes. Here's my personal, highly subjective, horror-story version: the March of Dimes was so successful at raising money to eradicate a serious evil that it rendered itself obsolete. The organizational response to this existential crisis was not to declare victory, but to look for some other cover story for keeping the staff's jobs intact and continuing to raise money. In other words, the organization became a solution in search of problem, an assembly line in search of a product to manufacture, an academic administration hoping to create a university of which their football team could be proud. The March of Dimes found a worthy cause, a truly unexceptional mission, but to me there is something chilling about this narrative.

I make jokes about not putting Descartes before the horse, but I have very real philosophical objections to allowing organizational activities such as fundraising or web site development to drive the mission of an organization that is supposed to provide a public benefit(2).

What if fundraising was not driving our sector's activities?

I hereby propose yet another thought experiment: What if there were a year-long moratorium on discussing fundraising and grantsmanship throughout the nonprofit sector?
I don't expect that I'll get a respite for one minute - let alone one year - from the topic of raising money to fund nonprofits. After all, who would enforce it, and what possible incentive would there be? But I can't help dreaming about a kind of Freedom of Information Act in reverse, one that would allow me to experience a kind of redacted nonprofit universe, just to see what we'd focus on - if hitting on individuals, families, and foundations for money were not the perpetual focus of our attention.

1) When Jane Eyre asks Edward Rochester whether he is a philanthropist, she's not inquiring whether he's has sent a check to the Community Chest.

2) Special note for the benighted: soliciting input from the community, especially from the community's most vulnerable constituents,(3) should help an organization define its goals and strategies. By the way, this should not merely be a marketing ploy to find out what will most please major donors, or to give those donors a completely spurious impression that they are somehow helping to shape the vision of the organization.

3) Of course, a community's most vulnerable constituents are notoriously unlikely to be major donors. Deal with it. Ask them for input anyway.


NonprofitCurmudgeon said...

Addendum: I just thought of an alternate title for this article.

"I can tell you're fundraising; your lips are moving."

Anonymous said...

I just wasted ten minutes of my time I will never get back reading this blog.

You really don't have anything to share do you?

NonprofitCurmudgeon said...

By "don't have anything to share" do you mean "don't have anything of value" to share?

If so, the answer is NO. Nothing at all.

As I have already explained, I write solely for my own amusement, and to blow off steam.

If you are seeking inspiration and uplift, or practical tips for career success, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Just a suggestion for the whiner who thinks that the Curmudgeon has nothing to share:

The second that you think you're wasting your time, JUST STOP.

Nobody is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to waste your life reading this blog. Just go do something else.

Those of us who enjoy raging and laughing along with the Nonprofit Curmudgeon will stick around.

Problem solved.

Anonymous said...

I'd like a break from both fundraising shoptalk AND fundraising pitches.