The Real World

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 22nd, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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There is a parallel, of which I am all too frequently reminded, between working in the nonprofit sector and being an early feminist of the second half of the 20th century:  just when you think you are making progress, something smacks you in the face and says, “Hah!  Gotcha, dummie!”   Recently, I got a double whammy of both. Michelle Nunn is the Democratic nominee for the US Senate seat from Georgia, and the on-leave CEO of Points of Light, an almost $30 million organization.  Her Republican opponent is David Perdue, a Fortune 500 CEO, as he proclaims on his campaign website, having led, among other businesses, Dollar General and Sara Lee.

During one of their heated campaign exchanges on the campaign trail, Perdue questions Nunn’s financial abilities, asking who is better equipped to discuss the economy:   “Someone who has been running a philanthropy for 15 years or whatever, or someone who has been out here, not to go bragging, competing in the real world?”

Seriously?  “Whatever?”  And, “competing in the real world?”

In what other world does he think nonprofits compete?  Is it possible that there is anyone of the supposed intelligence that it should take to run a Fortune 500 company—or small business—that still thinks of nonprofits as being the “distraction” that Fortune 500 executives’ dilettante wives do to fill their time when not playing tennis and relaxing at the country club and to make their husbands look civic-minded?  And, I’m sure Perdue isn’t alone. Shouldn’t we be well-beyond the days where an educated person, particularly one who has worked for and volunteered with a nonprofit (early in his career he worked for a Head Start program and currently is an officer on the board of the Georgia Tech Foundation), uses such dismissive language—and thinking—when it comes to nonprofits?

In trivializing Points of Light, he is diminishing the contributions made by the 2.6 million volunteers Points of Light says it mobilized in 2013, and the $579 million in services they gave.  While a really thoughtless thing for anyone else to say, it is really dumb to come out of the mouth of a politician.  My bet is a good number of those 2.6 million volunteers are Georgia voters! But the sad part is that I know Mr. Perdue is not alone in his old-school thinking that nonprofits don’t really count.  That is, after all, what we mean when we suggest that something or someone is not operating in the “real world.”

It is a very common slur used against academics by those who wish to self-elevate their value because they are out working “in the real world,” failing to realize that too many of them wouldn’t be doing what they were doing if it weren’t for the education academics provided. What more proof do these people need than that which the see every day of their lives?  It is plastered all over the national and local news, depending upon the story.

Like the nonprofit that bailed the US government out when it couldn’t continue to pay the benefits for the families of US soldiers.  The nonprofits working around the country to educate and enroll people in Obama Care.  The nonprofits that helped the family whose home burned down, or the rape victim when she ended up in the ER?  The nonprofits that enrich the lives of all of us by sharing museums and performances and open spaces?  The nonprofits that step up every day to help Americans all across the country—and, yes, even in Georgia—who have yet to recover from the Great Recession despite others’ celebrations of the five year anniversary of one of the longest bull markets America has experienced since the 1930s?

Just how much do Perdue and his cronies want to ignore?  (Wonder if his supporters know just how ignorant he is?)  Apparently, all those services that aren’t needed by those with solid stock portfolios!  (Depending on what numbers you look at, approximately half of all Americans—give or take a percentage or two—own stock, often through their retirement plans.  But, as with so much in this country, 10% own more than 80% of all stock assets.) This is not a finger pointed solely at Mr. Perdue; I can’t help but wonder how many current members of Congress share his view.  Or, his fellow former and current Fortune 500 executives?  Or, the list goes on.

But isn’t it time to get rid of antiquated notions, particularly when they make you look foolish when expressed in public? And speaking of looking foolish while helping the nonprofit sector take—well, I can’t even count how many—steps backwards, could this ice bucket dumping stop already?

Whoever thought this was a smart, good way to do anything—let alone raise awareness or funds.  And while I hate to be one of those continuing to perpetuate the ice bucket farce, I cannot control myself!  It is an oxymoron of a fundraiser, and I am enraged for the professionals who make up the nonprofit sector and I am infuriated on behalf of all who suffer directly and indirectly from the horrendous disease that is ALS.  Who, for one single moment, thought this was a good thing to do? This “fundraiser” feeds right into Mr. Perdue’s thinking, affirming, no doubt, all that the likes of him believe.

Nonprofits are not college fraternities!  And dumping buckets of ice on your head is a fraternity house antic.  Nor are we school fairs or student groups where you pay money—allegedly to help some school activity—and dunk the teacher or coach in a booth full of dirty, disgusting water. Nonprofits do not raise money selling cookies and cakes, wrapping paper and pizzas.  That is what school children (and their parents, really) do.  That is not what professional fundraisers do.  Professionals don’t use dares to get money (or, in this case, not to get money, a confusing notion in and of itself.) giving as a dare; their goal is to get money, not dare it away by appealing to too many people’s sense of self-aggrandizement!

If the “fundraiser” had achieved its goal, everyone who was presented with this “challenge” would have given money instead of making repetitive videos of themselves dumping buckets of ice on their heads.  And people would be talking about ALS instead of all the idiots—oh, excuse me, “celebrities”–who dumped ice buckets on their heads. Successful fundraising is built on a science of creating and sustaining donor loyalty.

How does this happen?  By demonstrating with facts and stories the positive impact of the work of a nonprofit.  It happens when someone—a staff or board member or other volunteer—exposes the nature of the need her/his organization tackles and how successful that organization is at redressing the need.  And then, year after year, that person is told additional stories of success, presented with further data to document accomplishments, so that faith and loyalty grow, along with the gifts.  And while it is true that fundraising often involves antics of some kind or another—an auction, a dress ball, a run/walk or a building climb, they are used as incentives to give not as outs for not giving.

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.