Donors: Help your causes ask the right questions

Erica McGeachy Crenshaw

“The sector has fallen into a trap we created. By focusing on what we DON’T spend, and not on what has been accomplished, we have completely missed the mark in our messaging. We are part of this problem and it’s up to us to educate our way out of it,” asserted Paulette Maehara, former president of Fundraising Professionals in Dan Pallotta’s groundbreaking book Charity Case (Jossey-Bass 2012).

I recently re-watched Dan Pallotta’s highly popular TED Talk about Charity Case and was energized by such a credible and well-researched argument about the commonly misinterpreted topic of administrative costs and overhead. Unfortunately, we’re working against a flawed philosophy reinforced for decades by donors and nonprofit executives alike. Consequently, this week’s post is a message to nonprofit donors and contains some of Pallotta’s main points worth repeating.

Stop asking the flawed question and get to the heart of what really matters

Donors have to stop asking the question, “What percentage of my donation goes to the cause versus the overhead?” Pallotta argues this question is flawed in several ways:

1) The question makes us think overhead is not part of the cause but it absolutely is.

2) It also promotes the notion that overhead steals from the cause, forcing charities to obsess over keeping short-term overhead low at the expense of long-term solutions.

3) This question ironically gives the donor really bad information. It tells nothing of the charity’s quality of work, shares nothing about how it defines the cause, leads donors to discriminate unknowingly, gives the wrong overhead figure because it’s measuring against the wrong result.

Help your charities advertise, take risks and give reasonable time to build sustainability

Pallotta further argues nonprofits have to operate under a separate and discriminatory rule book from businesses. For example, in the area of advertising and marketing, charities can’t build demand for donations to their causes while businesses advertise until the last dollar no longer produces a penny of value.

On the topic of risk taking in pursuit of new donors, while it’s okay if the movie industry spends $100 million on flops, a $5 million charity walk that doesn’t show a 75 percent profit in the first year is considered suspect. Consequently, nonprofits shy away from large-scale fundraising ideas and cannot benefit from powerful learning curves.

Yet another example relates to time horizon. New companies can go six years without returning any profits to investors in the interest of building market dominance while charities that have long-term goals are expected to yield short-term, direct services. If they don’t deliver, they are pariahs. You can help dismantle some of these rules by leveraging your dollars on projects that raise much-needed awareness, allow for calculated risk and long-term growth toward meaningful goals.

Nonprofits are starving financially

You can help by asking new questions like “What kind of impact are you able to accomplish with your cause?” or “What meaningful progress are you making toward systemic change?” Help charities break the starvation cycle of what feels like mandatory low or no overhead. Leverage your donor investments in new ways to get the community looking at the cause differently or to accommodate long-term systemic change.

by Erica McGeachy Crenshaw, President/CEO of Execute Now!

See also:

Charity Case by Dan Pallotta

CausePlanet blogs about Charity Case

2 responses to “Donors: Help your causes ask the right questions”

  1. This perspective is much needed and a long-time in coming. With the way that technology is changing how we market, communicate, inform and even fundraise, it is the nonprofits who are taking some risks and trying new approaches that are finding success. And yes, that success does not necessarily look like the previously defined nonprofit “model.”

    As a donor asking questions about impact tells your cause that you value the difference they can make and through them, you can make. Ask away!

  2. Wonderful points. Nonprofits are starving financially and you pinpointed some of the larger issues. Time for us all to ask new/better questions and take risks.

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