Promoting Us Non-Essentials

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 15th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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After every crisis of the last 20 years, many organized funders shift their priorities to meet the immediate needs stemming from that crisis. Following the logic, the nature of a crisis is that it creates urgent needs, quite often outside of, or intensifying, the ongoing needs of society. So, it is understandable that more money would flow in those directions. 

Philanthropic dollars are quite often a zero sum pie, this means that money is flowing away from those things the sector provides that are deemed less urgent, while perhaps even more money than usual is flowing towards those immediate needs.  

It seems that every city and every funder have some special Covid-19 fund going on. Some folks are urging owners of Donor Advised Funds (DAF) to step up and distribute money from these invisible pools of philanthropic money, and it seems some are listening. 

Fidelity Charitable reported an 18% increase in distributions from its DAFs in what amounts to the first third of the year, compared to the same time frame last year. (Imagine how much additional money could be out there if every one of the approximate 728,000 DAFs -representing approximately $120 billion dollars – were to increase their disbursements). No surprise, Fidelity is encouraging its DAF owners to give to organizations supporting Covid-19 relief. While that makes sense, it is still a problem. Yes, more dollars are going out, but directed to the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs – food, clothing, shelter. 

That leaves the rest of the organizations in the sector hanging –  those that aren’t viewed as directly responding to that hierarchy of needs – environmental groups, arts and culture and youth development organizations, those who work in areas of physical and mental health unrelated to Covid-19, social justice entities, and the list goes on. How do they compete for dollars and airspace when, like a whole category of employees, they have been sidelined as “non-essential?”  

The answer to that question is up to you. You may sit back quietly, recognize the difficult and usual times we are experiencing and say, “Today, that can be more important than my cause.” Or, you can refuse to be sidelined and say, “My organization’s work, our mission, is as essential and important to the long-term well-being of our community/our society and, therefore, we cannot afford to be pushed aside.”  

If you choose the latter route, which you should, you need a full court advocacy press. You need to use the resources available to you – your board members, your staff, your social media platforms, your phone lines, to advocate for the importance of your slice of the sector, the benefits that the whole sector brings to a community, in times of crisis and in times of calm. You must push people to expand that philanthropic pie so that it nourishes the whole sector so that the whole sector can serve and nurture all parts of our communities. 

In times of crisis, we risk the very essence of our communities if we promote certain needs over others, risking being left with a shell of what we were before. 

According to various reports, it seems that the vast majority of philanthropists are going to continue being philanthropists right now. The largest number I have seen for those individuals who plan to stop on their charitable giving is 20%. And while some of the 80% who plan on continuing to give say they will give less, there are more who are saying they will give as they have in the past, if not more. In the post Great Recession era, multiple reports noted that almost 40% of prior givers stopped giving, but not because that was their plan. They stopped giving because they were not asked. 

If people aren’t aware of you, they can’t give; if you aren’t aware of people interested in you, you can’t ask. Just because your mission doesn’t fit neatly within Maslow’s hierarchy, you can’t dim your lights or turn the volume down on your microphone. The media and others are taking care of Maslow-related organizations. You must take care of your own organization and those within that same sphere. Working together you have a better chance of being heard.

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.