Double Standards

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 25th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary


A  few weeks ago, Daniel Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a column about a woman who had spent a year tracking all of the charitable solicitations she had received – those she’d given to, those she hadn’t; how many solicitations she received from each; the “giveaways” she had received, etc.  Naturally, she, and many of the readers of Rubin’s column expressed dismay over the volume of solicitations received and, more importantly, the money that nonprofits were “wasting” sending out all of these requests for donations.

Rubin received a lot of feedback on this column.  Nothing that those of us in the nonprofit sector and who know anything about fundraising hadn’t heard before.  There was, of course, the anger and annoyance that nonprofits should spend their money more wisely, the lament of how much money is wasted and, of course, the usual “this is the problem with nonprofits.”  Rubin, however, decided to do a follow-up, and see if the grumbling was well-deserved or misinformed.

In being interviewed by Rubin for this follow-up column, I asked him, rhetorically, of course, why is it that in the for-profit world we accept as de rigueur that you must spend money to make money but we can’t abide by it in the nonprofit sector?

This is a cliché that we hear again and again and that manifests itself in so many different ways:  you must spend money to advertise in order to bring in business and make more money; you must spend money to buy stocks and bonds in order to reap the dividends and share splitting that comes with ownership; you must buy clothes that allow you to dress for the job you want, and make more money, than dress for the job you have, etc., etc., etc.

And when, in the for-profit world, this truism is trotted out to encourage people to buy that larger building, hire more staff, buy more advertising, or whatever, no one blinks an eye, says a scurrilous word or sentence, thinks twice.  It is the way of that world.  But let a nonprofit embrace that same axiom, and the defamatory comments rain down.

This message really hit home for me today, when I received a personal-sounding e-mail from a temp agency with which I have never had prior contact.  Naturally, they were trying to sell me their services, though I don’t know why The Nonprofit Center would need a copy editor or a production artist.

When I shared it with a colleague, pointing out that no one is railing against this for-profit for this solicitation—which did not work on me—she told me she’d been contacted three times last week by this same company, including telephone solicitation.  And, wait, the approach wasn’t working on her, either.  While we may occasionally use temporary staff of some kind, this is not how I want to be solicited when I am ready for this product.  And I did wonder whether the prices they charge for this product couldn’t be lowered if they weren’t spending so much money on unwelcomed and ineffective advertising.

But, you know what? There isn’t going to be a column written about the number of unwelcomed solicitations I get from for-profit companies; or how many charities got my name because a magazine I subscribe to or a company I deal with sold my name.  Those solicitations will just get shrugged off, deleted or thrown into the trash and that’s the end of that.  Because that is simply the way they do business.  But while those unwanted solicitations from nonprofits get deleted or tossed, that’s where the similarity ends.

The negative taste and harsh criticism left behind by this “waste of money, money that is not going to deliver the mission” will malinger and fester.   And the next solicitation received from a nonprofit, whether it is a mission of interest or not, will prompt a stronger, more visceral reaction.  It might cause epithets to be uttered, nasty letters written and promises not to waste money by supporting that nonprofit that squanders its money trying hard to raise more money to fulfill its mission promise.

Yet another double standard for the nonprofit world!

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