Can We Fix Charitable Giving?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 13th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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There is so much chatter these days about what needs to be done for nonprofits do to get the resources to survive these tough economic times, from what organizations should organizations do; to what should funders do; to what individuals should do.  But from what I’ve seen, with the only exception possibly being social networking, nothing is new.  But that’s not necessarily bad.

Pablo Eisenberg, who I have always deeply respected, but do so even more when he plays the role of “irascible critic,” had an article in the November 9 Wall Street Journal in which he identifies nine ways to “fix” charitable giving.  His suggestions range from increasing the mandatory foundation minimum distribution percentage to increasing general operating support and funding the government watchdog agencies to simplifying the application and reporting processes.  You won’t get any argument from me on any of these.  And yet, with the possible exception of funding the watchdog agencies, none of his nine points is new.

One of the old mantras of tough economic is “the board needs to step up and fulfill its fundraising responsibilities.”  And yet, apparently many are not.  Our economic impact survey done in May, 2009, found only 25% of responding organizations had individual board members stepping up the fundraising plate, making larger gifts, bringing in more donors, selling more tickets.  Six months later, and lots of layoffs and cutbacks later, our follow-up survey, still in the collection stage, shows that has only inched up to 28%.

So, I tell you a tale of one, albeit very cautiously.  As a lapsed statistician, I know how skewed one can be and the dangers of generalizing from one.  So, do not take this story and generalize, but take it as a demonstration of how old advice still works today.

We just held the third annual meeting of the organization on whose board I sit.    This is NOT and never was intended to be a fundraising event; it is, totally and completely, a friend-raiser.  This year, I, stupidly, agreed to chair this event.  Last year, we had 350 people register for the event.  That means they bought or were given a ticket to attend.  That was before everyone realized just how much the economy had really tanked.  Notwithstanding the economy, our goal this year was to match that goal, despite having raised ticket prices by $10.  Well, we saw it and raised it by more than 25 additional attendees.

Why? How? Bulldogs!  The board president, vice president/board of advisors chair and I constantly hounded our fellow board members to send out invitations, buy tickets to give to the right people (nonprofit leaders and people with money), follow-up with individuals, etc.  All members of the board and board of advisors had to buy and give away 10 tickets; many bought twice that many, gave them away, and continued to send invitations.  Two members of the board of advisors approached every chapter in our geographic region of a particular service organization, even making visits to meetings, encouraging members to attend.

As for my own tickets, I did what fundraising experts always tell us to do.  I began cultivating relationships—though perhaps with a little twist.  I can claim all of the same things that board members trying to duck out of their fundraising responsibilities always throw at me:

  • I don’t know people with money
  • don’t know people in high places
  • don’t belong to the posh country clubs, etc.

But I do know how to read.  I’d been collecting names of people I’d read about that I thought should know about this organization.  I wrote each a personal note (not in my usual illegible scribble either), and invited these eight people I’ve never met to attend this event as my guest.  Six responded positively!  I can’t wait to meet them, put a face to a name, a description to the causes that matter to them.

What this board did truly should not be considered exceptional, but the mandatory minimum of what boards of directors and the other supporting boards of a nonprofit should do.  Forgot the cutesy slogans that people like to throw at you:  board members should bring time, treasure and talent; no, they should bring work, wealth, wallop (as in clout), and wisdom.

Regardless of the economic times, board members need to bring to their board service expertise of use to the organization, a willingness to do the work and go the extra mile and an evangelical fervor for the mission.  That’s how you get to push 400 guests, even in tough economic times.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.