INSTEAD or AND philanthropy

This is the age-old cannibalization question, the sleeping giant we are terrified to wake. It’s the specific story, the individual program that connects with a donor in a deeper way BUT might pull them away from precious, scarce, unrestricted support.

Do we, in telling that story, lose the donor forever to the cause as a whole?

I don’t think so. Not most donors, not most of the time. But it is a risk.

It boils down to a question of share of philanthropic pocket and share of philanthropic mind.

Most of the time, for most of our funders, we are a small portion of their philanthropic mindshare and their philanthropic pocket. This is because most of our donors are under-engaged, because they are busy and because, for most of them, we show up when it’s time to ask for something and then we disappear. Shame on us.

The more specific story – or more specific program – is powerful because it’s usually more visceral and it feels more real. In telling that story in the right way, we have the opportunity to create a deeper connection. And, when we do it right, we will tell the specific story as an illustration of the whole, and ask for funding for the whole. This is the best way to fundraise, and it requires passion, discipline and practice to get it right.

But that won’t work for everyone. Some funders – either because that’s their mindset or because that’s where they are in their philanthropic journey with your organization – want the more specific. That’s OK too if the more specific will ignite their passion, will enable their deeper connection to their work, and will transform them from passive to active supporters. Even if the dollar amount of their support remains unchanged, a wildly passionate supporter is worth ten times (a hundred?) an unengaged but consistent supporter.

If you succeed (yes, succeed, because it’s a win) in generating this sort of shift, your job is to recognize it and invite that person fully over to your side of the table, to take their newfound passion and energy, along with your much-clearer understanding of how you can truly partner with them, and enlist them in the countless ways they can help: to improve your thinking, bring other resources to the table, help spread your story…whatever else they can do beyond writing a check that will really help the cause.

While all this is true, it’s also true that sometimes this is a tradeoff – an INSTEAD rather than an AND.

Some funders are engaged and care already and are giving significantly, and then they hear a particular new story and they will choose to trade between the broad (or unrestricted) and the narrow – at least for now. That’s OK too. In this case, the only thing to do is to have a clear conversation about what’s going on, and, if there’s space for it, to ask whether they would consider an AND rather than an INSTEAD donation for that new program. Even when you do this all perfectly, don’t forget that sometimes resources (time and money) are finite, which means that sometimes one thing gets traded for another.

I believe that this last case is the rarest, and that even when it happens it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because this is a long-term game, and ultimately our job is to build an army of supporters who care deeply and are with us for the long haul, not an army of check writers who care a little.

All of this is to say that there’s a lot of nuance here, and a huge amount of space between “support the whole cause” (which is wonderful, powerful, and is the way we hope all philanthropy will happen, but is hard to sustain) and “we have 18 programs you can support and if you support just that we’ll run out of operating money in 6 months.”

It’s up to us to manage this gray area with grace, clarity, and love.

(Oh, and in case you haven’t yet been a passionate, engaged, connected reader of this blog, you can still spread the word to your NYC friends about the Catalyst for Change event this Thursday at 7pm where I’ll be speaking.)

The Overhead Myth

The founders of the three largest charity watchdogs in the US have penned a letter and started a campaign to debunk the overhead myth.  Between Dan Pallotta’s outstanding TED talk this year – with nearly 2 million views and counting – and this move by Art Taylor (BBB Wise Giving Alliance), Jacob Harold (GuideStar), and Ken Berger (Charity Navigator), we might just be at the beginning of the end of the tyranny of “low overheads = well-run charity.”

Quoting from the new website, http://overheadmyth.com:

The letter, signed by all three organization’s CEOs, marks the beginning of a campaign to correct the common misconception that the percentage of charity’s expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs—commonly referred to as “overhead”—is, on its own, an appropriate metric to evaluate when assessing a charity’s worthiness and efficiency. The nonprofit sector, which all three organizations provide information to and about, has too often erroneously focused on overhead over the past few decades, which has starved nonprofits from investing in themselves as enterprises and created what the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.”

I don’t yet know the details of the aforementioned campaign, but it’s high time we had one.  My hope is that the campaign provides donors and funders rules that are as simple as the “low overhead” mantra has been, because we won’t debunk one simple, easy-to-follow orthodoxy unless we replace it with another.

The challenge, of course, is that solving big problems is hard, complex, and nuanced.  Nevertheless, my bet is that the most successful version of this campaign will result in simple mantras and a few short checklists, as well as focused advocacy with the big foundations, institutional donors, and signatories of the Giving Pledge.

I’m excited to see this unfold, and to support the effort.  As a start, here’s the full text of their letter, which you can endorse here.

To the Donors of America:

We write to correct a misconception about what matters when deciding which charity to support.

The percent of charity expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs—commonly referred to as “overhead”—is a poor measure of a charity’s performance.

We ask you to pay attention to other factors of nonprofit performance:  transparency, governance, leadership, and results.  For years, each of our organizations has been working to increase the depth and breadth of the information we provide to donors in these areas so as to provide a much fuller picture of a charity’s performance.

That is not to say that overhead has no role in ensuring charity accountability. At the extremes the overhead ratio can offer insight: it can be a valid data point for rooting out fraud and poor financial management.  In most cases, however, focusing on overhead without considering other critical dimensions of a charity’s financial and organizational performance can do more damage than good.

In fact, many charities should spend more on overhead.  Overhead costs include important investments charities make to improve their work: investments in training, planning, evaluation, and internal systems—as well as their efforts to raise money so they can operate their programs.  These expenses allow a charity to sustain itself (the way a family has to pay the electric bill) or to improve itself (the way a family might invest in college tuition).

When we focus solely or predominantly on overhead, we can create what the Stanford Social Innovation Review has called “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.”  We starve charities of the freedom they need to best serve the people and communities they are trying to serve.

If you don’t believe us—America’s three leading sources of information about charities, each used by millions of donors every year—see the back of this letter for research from other experts including Indiana University, the Urban Institute, and others that proves the point.

So when you are making your charitable giving decisions, please consider the whole picture.  The people and communities served by charities don’t need low overhead, they need high performance.

Thank you,

Art Taylor
President & CEO, BBB Wise Giving Alliance

Jacob Harold
President & CEO, GuideStar

Ken Berger
President & CEO, Charity Navigator