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.For nonprofit professionals:
(Is it bell ringers asking for donations on street corners?)
Doing "charity work."
(Is it donating money and persuading others to donate money?)
(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?)
Storytelling.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?
(Is it a strategy for turning your organization's well-wishers into donors?)
(Is it a strategy for persuading grantmakers to continue giving you money?)
(Is it new strategy for raising money?)
(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?)
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?
- What stories would make the headlines of the Chronicle of Philanthropy?
- What would the social media pundits of the nonprofit sector tweet about?
- What would all the volunteers on the committees that organize charity galas do with their copious talent and energy?
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.