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When philanthropy turns passive

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I’m doing a bang-up job on my New Year’s resolution so far.  Just like I resolved, I’m donating X amount of my income to charity each month.  I have a handful of my favorite nonprofits, from the local to the international, and they get money from me every month to employ homeless people in Seattle and woman survivors of war in Bosnia, and to protect civil liberties and abused animals and the environment.  My life is good.  I have more than I need.  So I can afford to give back and still pay my grad school loans.

And thanks to direct debit, I automated it all.  A certain day comes and poof! my money goes forth to do good.  That’s how I know I’m on target.  There’s no other option.  I have to do literally nothing each month (except not lose my job) and my favorite nonprofits get my donations.

It’s so easy. And it’s so passive.

Dan Pallotta has a new post on passive philanthropy, a must-read for fundraisers and philanthropists alike.  He bemoans the “least-you-can-do” attitude of many nonprofits, which divvy up donors into major gifts (often above the $50k level) and…everyone else.  Like me.  Guess which group gets most of the attention from the development staff.  And by attention, I mean cultivation and opportunity to make a difference for nonprofits and their missions.

Dan (who I realize I wrote about recently as well, but the man knows his stuff) points out that letting the “everyone else” group of donors get away with the least they can do not only lets down nonprofits, but also fails to tap into the potential of these donors.  His story about pushing young donors to give more than they (or I) would think themselves capable of struck a chord in me.  If someone asked me to give $5,000 to a group and cause I’m passionate about, would I whip out my checkbook?  Probably not.  But the thought of such an opportunity thrills me. Being able to give so much is a privilege.  Being asked is an honor.  And actually considering it is only a little crazy.

Which leaves me feeling even more bereft and restless about my automated monthly contributions.  I used to scoff at the idea of throwing money at a problem, and now I’m doing it. As a fundraiser myself, no less. For shame, I know.

So how do I break out of this quicksand of passivity? Give more? I can’t. At least, not if I want to pay my loans and feed the cat (and myself) and put gas in the car and maintain my addiction to Cheerios.  Do I stop giving and start volunteering? I don’t have enough hours in the week for all the groups I give to.

The closest I can come to a solution is that I should keep up on what’s happening with my chosen nonprofits–read their literature, attend their events, tell my friends and family why I give to them, maybe blog and tweet about them (for what it’s worth).  Maybe I’m less cut out to be a philanthropist than an evangelist.

If you’re a fundraiser, how do you connect with your non-major donors?  If you’re a non-major donor, how do you fight the seduction of passive philanthropy?


Written by eclawson

March 1, 2010 at 9:47 PM

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Three views of fundraising

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I love fundraising.  I’m borderline evangelical about it.  And I love my new job, too, even though it’s not really fundraising–same department, but just this side of, well, not interacting with donors at all.  And donors are the best part of fundraising. I miss them.

But the best part of blogging is getting to read other bloggers’ brilliant insights, and recently three posts have fueled my brain.  All three deal with perception of fundraising, and from different angles: what it is, what it’s not, and what it should be.

First, Dan Pallotta‘s post “Haiti Is a Marketing Lesson,” observing philanthropy through the lens of giving to Haiti, credits the media for spurring $560 million in Haiti relief.  The terms he uses are straight out of Economics 101: The media “are building demand for purchasing charity for Haiti on a massive scale. And, small wonder, massive purchasing is occurring. How much do we think would be given to Haiti if the story ended after one news broadcast on the day it happened?”

According to Dan’s observation, philanthropy is a mechanical response to marketing. Push the right buttons on donors and the money will flow.  And he goes on to posit the wider application of this money machine:

“Imagine if we gave humanitarian organizations the freedom to build this kind of demand for a cure for malaria or the end of breast cancer. Imagine if we relinquished our fixation on keeping short-term fundraising costs low and set our gaze on what it would take to ‘sell’ enough charity to solve long-term problems. I’m not talking about mimicking traditional corporate advertising, with dumbed-down jingles, adolescent humor, or inauthentic feel-goodism. I’m talking about investing massive resources in reimagined creative approaches — serious, photo-journalistic, perhaps documentary-style educational ad campaigns with all the gravitas and dignity these urgent causes deserve.”

What’s missing from this setup? Fundraisers.  The Haiti crisis was a shining example of charitable money without the charitable middlemen.  (The corporate middlemen of cell phone companies or Internet interfaces are another matter.) Even’s Dan’s marketing campaigns are just that–marketing.  No donor cultivation.  No relationship-building.  In short, no fundraisers.

On the other hand, I’m not knocking text-message giving, or Internet-giving, or any giving made with the friction-reduction of technology. I’m just asking: how does an organization build relationships with donors who interact only with a keypad or computer screen?

Then again, why even cultivate $10 donors?  Patrick Sallee’s post “Fundraising isn’t begging” examines the role of street canvassers, who act as (often annoying) middlemen between charities and donors. Canvassers, he says, reflect poorly on the organizations they work for. “Is this what you want to say about your brand?” he asks. As both a former canvasser and a former donor to canvassers, I agree. There’s a thin line between canvassing and begging, and I can’t even tell where it is. When I was canvassing, passersby avoided me as if I was covered in sewage.  When approached by canvassers, I give out of pity–because I’ve been there. (Dear ACLU and Greenpeace: I love you, but it’s true.) And yet as bad as canvassers are for a nonprofit’s brand, they at least go a step closer toward building a relationship with their donors than text-message giving does. They chat, they answer questions, and they otherwise put themselves on the line for their organizations or causes. Canvassing says, “I am willing to be rejected and exhausted for terrible pay just to help someone/something else.” And for that, I have mad respect. Way to walk your talk, canvassers.

But Patrick’s right–you’re begging with credentials.

So if fundraising is just marketing (per Dan), and is not canvassing (per Patrick), what should it be? Jessica Journey answers that in her post “Fundraiser, Are you a Living Donor Coordinator?” Jessica compares the ideal for nonprofit fundraisers to the role of the individual who guided her through donating a kidney recently, a gift considerably more ponderous than $10 via text or canvasser. And in that comparison, she offers a list of questions for fundraisers to ask themselves, including “Are you easy to get a hold of?” (as text-message giving is), “Are you helping donors make an informed decision?” (as canvassers are), and “Are you there for the whole process?” (as neither text-message giving nor canvassers are).

Jessica’s post picked up on something that both Dan’s and Patrick’s, though apt, missed: fundraising is about relationships. And while I may no longer technically be a fundraiser, I see this in the office every day: front-line fundraisers keeping in touch with our supporters, from the $10 givers (though not on a personal level) to the major givers, to make sure their needs and preferences are known and considered. As Jessica’s comparison suggests, giving is never just about the recipient.  A donor is not an ATM to be marketed to, or a passerby to ply. Nonprofits enable donors to help others in ways that are effective and accountable, and if a donor is serious about helping others, she will want to build a relationship with nonprofits that can help her do so.

This is what I miss about being a fundraiser: interacting with donors who want this relationship. Granted, not all do. Some will text $10 or humor a canvasser for $20 and never be heard from again. But building a relationship with those donors who want it is part of creating a culture of giving. And that’s something neither marketing nor canvassing can accomplish.

Written by eclawson

February 14, 2010 at 8:36 PM

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Sexiness is overrated.

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Nonprofit infrastructure isn’t sexy.  When I started working in it, my friends didn’t understand what I was doing.  “What cause are you working for?” they would ask, meaning well and trying to clarify.  And when I’d reply that I was working for the health of the entire nonprofit sector, they would ask, “Isn’t that a little too…meta?  Helping the helpers?”

Meta, navel-gazing…perhaps.  But as unsexy as infrastructure is, it holds the sector together. So when Rosetta described the unexpected and unfortunate struggle of,  I picked up the torch in the comments and am carrying it here as well.  In my comment I mentioned my concern that associations get mired in the demands of their members and become risk-averse.  Idealist isn’t an association and doesn’t pander to the center.  It simply connects people and ideas, people and opportunities, people and people.

And like Rosetta and Kevin and other nonprofit bloggers, I ask just one thing. Whether you got a job or volunteer gig from Idealist (as I did), or just peruse it for opportunities–because it’s full of them–you can help save it.  Donate to Idealist. Blog and tweet about it.  Don’t let one of the beacons of 21st-century infrastructure crumble; our sector will be worse off without it.  And I’m not sure we can handle that right now.

Written by eclawson

January 31, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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One-off or a way of life?

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Small donors have a lot to feel good about right now.  During the 2008 election cycle, our current president benefited from a reinvigorated wave of small donations.  In the throes of a recession, small donors are hailed as the great untapped potential of American giving.  Donor literature swirls anew with phrases like “every little bit helps!” and “Your dollar makes a difference!”

And in the aftermath of disaster in Haiti, small donors attained new celebrity in the news for collectively contributing millions to relief efforts in $5 and $10 increments via text message.  There has never been a better time to be a small donor.

While this is remarkable, there’s a danger in over-celebrating gifts that are small, one-time, and reactive.  They’re vital but not enough.  People, animals, and the environment suffer even in the absence of earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, and other disasters.

The blogosphere, including the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance, is doing an admirable job of a balancing act: on one hand, recognizing the need for and impact of small donations (and by small, I’m talking $5 and $10 a pop, which may be considered “ultra-small” by many fundraisers); on the other, reiterating the need for long-term assistance and for awareness of underlying aggravators such as racism.  The American Red Cross and other nonprofits are pushing the message as well, at least as far as I’ve seen in their acknowledgment emails for the small gifts I made in the past week.  (Online, not by text, and for general operating funds, since the Red Cross and other agencies do more than just disaster relief.)

As obvious as this message of sustained giving may seem, to stick in the minds of most (actual and would-be) donors, it must overcome a formidable foe: the news cycle.  In a matter of days or weeks, another story will take over the airwaves and column inches, and news consumers will begin to forget about Haiti again.  Many of us do what we can when reminded, but reminders can be scarce, easily ignored, or even unwelcome.  As a result, giving is often ad hoc, not institutionalized.  The holidays show us that much every year.

So on a day reserved for remembering a man who, among many things, said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”, use the momentum of mobilization around Haiti’s earthquake relief as an opportunity to assess and institutionalize your giving.

  • Do you only give after a disaster?
  • Do you only give when asked?
  • How could you set up monthly donations, weekly volunteering, regular clothing or food drives, etc. to help others year-round?

Texting $10 should be the beginning, not the end.

Written by eclawson

January 18, 2010 at 3:28 PM

Personal branding: why I won’t be converted

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I didn’t plan on getting tangled up in a blogosphere debate over personal branding (catch up on the action at Rosetta’s blog and Allison’s and mine), but I’m glad I did.  And I’m glad I’m playing defense in a debate dominated by pro-branders.  Many sing the praises of personal branding, and few ask critical questions about it.

My recent concession on personal branding was too meek.  Here’s what I meant: personal branding is a waste of my time. 

Other Brazen Careerists and bloggers are speaking out against it too.  Carlos Miceli says to hell with personal branding.  Andrew Swenson says we’re not thinking critically about it.   Justin Wise isn’t convinced that marketing a person like a brand is a good idea.  And Boon Chew one-ups us all by not even talking about personal branding, but backing off from cyberspace and living in the real world.

I have no beef with the personal brands of my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or fellow bloggers.  You are rad.  You wow me every day, as you did even before you had brands.  (Because there was such a time.  This is not an organic concept.  Someone made it up and then it caught fire.)

My problem, however, is that personal branding is like religious evangelism: if you don’t buy into it, you’re going to hell.  Or so the evangelists say.  I can write all day about how personal branding is made up, a waste of time, pure jargon, neo-narcissism, etc.  But if I do, pro-branders will reply: You have a brand whether you like it or not.  All you can do is control it. 

Which leads me to wonder: if I don’t want to have a brand, why do others want me to?  Why, in other words, is it so extremely important to pro-branders that everyone acknowledge personal branding as real?  Why not let bygones be byones—or just atheists?

My hunch is that, like religious evangelists who believe nonbelievers are going to hell,  pro-branders believe the unbranded will suffer professional decay, and wish to save them from that fate by preaching the gospel of personal branding.  The intention is admirable.  But just as I don’t believe in hell, I don’t believe that a torturous ruin awaits me if I neglect my online persona.  Real life is not about cyberspace.  Yes, what I do online often touches my job, at least on the fringes.  But what I do offline is more important.

I admit: if I have a personal brand, it’s my own fault.  It means I’ve spent too much time thinking about how others see me.  I don’t want to be that self-conscious.  I don’t want to limit myself to how I want to be seen.  I don’t want to live or die by whether I’ve impressed or disappointed someone.  If I can create an entire persona around how much I worry what other people think of me, I’m wasting my time.

Note that I didn’t say “you,” or even the vague third-person “one.”  If you want a personal brand, that’s your business.  Just don’t insist I have one.  Let me be a nonbeliever.  I’ll be okay.

Call me cynical, but I suspect personal branding is a fad.

Written by eclawson

December 31, 2009 at 4:21 PM

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Double the impact, double the warm fuzzies

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Christmas aside, I made December a month of gifts for a different reason: every day I’ve been giving a gift, whether it be a gesture, a donation, or a pint of blood.  And in  the course of these gifts, I’ve found that I love being a donor almost as much as I love being a fundraiser.  And I’ve stumbled across several don’t-miss-it gems of the donation world: matching gifts.

For anyone not in the know yet, these fundraising campaigns involve a donor (often anonymous) who offers to match every dollar raised, sometimes even two-for-one, during a specific time period.  As a donor, especially a small one like me (true in both stature and bank account), matching gifts are a chance to give twice the capacity without twice the hole in our wallets.

With that in mind, check out three nonprofits currently running matching gift campaigns ending this week (links will open donation page in new window):

1. Muttville (San Francisco, CA) finds homes for elderly dogs that otherwise would meet bad ends in shelters.  In honor of their 500th adoption, an anonymous donor is matching all gifts through December 31.

2. CARE empowers the world’s poorest women to lift their families out of poverty.  A group of donors will match every contribution dollar for dollar until December 31.

3. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center received a pledge from the parents of founder Jeff Bezos to match, two for one, every donation made for immunotherapy research by December 31.  (Full disclosure: the Center is my employer but I am not involved in this campaign.)

Do you know of another matching gift campaign in the final countdown this week?  Post the link in a comment so others can start 2010 with some doubly-good karma.

Written by eclawson

December 27, 2009 at 7:02 PM

I take it back. Kinda.

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In a previous post, I made a parenthetical statement, almost an afterthought, that “personal branding is a lie.”  I had no data to support it; I just threw it out there and walked away.

But Rosetta Thurman diligently noticed and artfully rebutted it, and I now have to admit: I was wrong.  Personal branding serves purposes—very concrete ones—and a lot of people find it useful.  A lot.  It has theory and methodology, and its meaning is understood by many.

However.  While I admit on an intellectual, left-brain level that the evidence for the importance of personal branding outweighs whatever made-up non-data I had in mind when I called it a lie, my emotional right brain is putting up a fight.  I don’t want to be a brand.  I don’t even want to have a brand.  I want to BE a human and HAVE a life.  I’m not saying that brand and life are mutually exclusive.  Rosetta’s personal brand is rock solid because it’s based on her inspiring, fabulous self.  But we’re all different.  Part of my background is in marketing and communications, where a brand is not flesh and blood and soul, but something both ethereal and squirrelly to be “managed.”  I can’t shake that connotation.

So instead of working on my personal brand (“What’s my reputation?), I’ll work on my personal mark (“What are my contributions?”)  Perhaps it’s the same thing as branding after all.  But it at least feels more human.

Written by eclawson

December 15, 2009 at 10:09 PM

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