Donor Centered Fundraising Is Not The Real Problem.

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I’ve read, re-read, and then read a third and fourth time Vu Le’s recent broadside against the donor centered fundraising model and its moral limitations. Please study it if you haven’t already, for the issues raised are fundamental to our industry, and if you consistently read one non-profit blog, make it this one.

Placing a donor’s wishes and biases above all else in our fundraising programs is a slippery practice, and that’s just the start of Vu Le’s concerns about our current zealous focus on the wealthiest to make the largest investments.

We absolutely need, as a society, to recognize that there is only “we” and “us”, and that those with more have a moral duty and obligation to support those who have less. Vu Le rightly relates our industry to the larger inequities of our late age America, a time when most of us wonder if our civilization, like the Romans and the Pharaohs, is coming to an inevitable conclusion sooner rather than later. Everything has a beginning, middle and end, and where does American society look to you these days, reading the paper on Sunday morning?

So I get it. But let’s give a gentle pause to holding up philanthropy as an example of all that is wrong with America. Much of the criticism I see about philanthropy is an argument against wealthy folks getting buildings named after them for things that they should be doing anyway. But this much too simplistic. There are many, and better, ways to avoid taxes than by giving one’s money, and if giving away cash was the most efficient way to get one’s names on buildings, our President would be in the philanthropy business, and not the real estate game.

What does any single wealthy person owe your organization? Nothing. Not one single thing, regardless of your mission, moral certainty or good works. Is this fair? It is not fair. It isn’t. One of the giant challenges of today’s philanthropy is the near impossible necessity of potential donors to care about things as a precursor to support. And this really sucks, unless you are the beneficiary.

Let me give you an example that happens all the time in America: The Disease That Impacted Our Family:

The Wealthy Smiths are lovely people. The Wealthy Smiths also have strict guidelines about philanthropy, via the private Smith Family Foundation (focused on animal welfare and various scholarly publications) and, when asked to contribute or engage in most galas or fundraising campaigns, politely and privately decline almost always, citing current priorities and the vast number of requests received annually.

But then, a grandchild is born, with a grim medical diagnosis of pediatric diabetes, and the floodgates open. Grandma Smith organizes a gala, endows a position at the hospital, and joins the Board of Directors of the National Pediatric Diabetes Foundation. She becomes an unstoppable advocate in the community about this terrible disease, and a powerful force for good. As a direct result of her grandson’s unfortunate medical challenge, thousands of other kids will benefit from treatment and research, and the world is a little better place for it.

Did Grandma Smith have a sudden moral awakening that all children deserve good quality medical care? She did not. She had a personal encounter with a tragic childhood disease, and as a direct and singular result, opened her heart, network and checkbook. There was no educating her before the sick child arrived. She supported scholarly publications and puppies.

And so, what should a fundraiser do with this Gift from the Gods? Are you kidding? Embrace it. Ask for more. Start the Smith Family Matching Challenge Campaign. Make Grandma Smith the Hero of Children’s Diabetes. Name the program after her. Create a Donor of the Year Award. Anything else would be professional malpractice. 

And Yet…does this random chance occurrence (a child with a disease born into a wealthy family) demonstrate any sort of cohesive public policy or sustainable framework for society? Of course not. We’ve allowed wealthy citizens to pick and choose their pet causes, based on personal interest and preference, if they decide to engage in philanthropy at all.

And so none of this is working particularly well for society, but it is not really our fault as fundraisers. The fight here, truly, is not with non-profits, simply doing their best in very challenging circumstances. In our industry, we should be gentler with each other, accepting that we work in an a very imperfect society. This gross inequity of late stage America, of sickening wealth accumulated by the few at the expense of the rest of us, isn’t about overuse of the word “you” in fundraising letters, or overindulging in placing donors at the center of solving our problems.

The real question over what’s fair or sustainable for all is a much larger one, as the rich get ever richer. It is about regressive tax structure, and debating government’s singular reach to bolster (as in the 90s and the decades prior) a healthier middle class. It is about health care for every single one of us, so that the youngster born with type one diabetes gets the care he needs as a human right. There is no change we can make to philanthropy to solve this moral crisis, no way we can engage foundations or educate donors that will truly solve this dreadful inequity.

So, we do what we can in philanthropy, accepting that the system is deeply flawed. We celebrate Grandmother Smith in the battle against pediatric diabetes, and we cash the Smith Family Foundation check.

And, if we are serious about solving true inequity, there is but one solution. We Vote.

About jeremymhatch

If I could, I'd write about nothing but tacos. Alas, I am fundraising and leadership consultant in the arts, focusing on contributed revenue growth for organizations. Send me a compliment or complaint. And the location for the good tacos in your town.
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4 Responses to Donor Centered Fundraising Is Not The Real Problem.

  1. JWK says:

    We’ve allowed wealthy citizens to pick and choose their pet causes, based on personal interest and preference

    Don’t most people pick their pet causes based upon personal interest and preference? Poor people give to their church, alumni to their college, women giving to women-centric organizations. The Disease story is excellent, but it’s a bit troubling when you say ‘We allowed wealthy citizens to pick. We didn’t allow them, it’s their right to give as they choose. It’s their money. If you want hem to give based on your personal interests and preference, then make the case to them.

    • jeremymhatch says:

      Absolutely, wealthy people have every right to make their own decisions about philanthropy. But it is as the expense of broader society. So the $10million that goes to Harvard’s multi billion endowment (good for them) represents taxes that weren’t paid that could go to health care, early education, and so on. Expecting philanthropy to solve this inequity issue is unreasonable. We need sensible tax policy.

      • Cathie Schau says:

        True. We ALSO need a 1% willing to recognize their part in “this inequality issue.” Like Nick Hanauer.

      • jeremymhatch says:

        Absolutely – but asking for a moral decision, instead of compelling them through sensible tax policy is folly.

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