Over the past year, I’ve read two thought-provoking articles – “Donation Inflation,” by Toni Coleman in CASE Currents and “Unplanned Obsolescence,” by Paul Clolery in the NonProfit Times – which focus on different topics but speak to a similar root concern for the future of philanthropy in the U.S.
In “Donation Inflation,” Coleman highlights the seemingly insatiable appetite for higher education campaigns to be driven myopically on setting and reaching a “magic dollar goal.” For many institutions today, that goal is $1 billion. Get to that number and your institution becomes a successful fundraising institution.
In the crusade to reach the magic dollar goal, however, campaign counting irregularities are becoming questionable if not fully unethical. One institution may decide to count royalties from a patent or an ongoing state grant in campaign totals. Another may count questionable and inflated gift-in-kind “money.” As a consultant, I see it daily. And yes, it’s a mess to be sure. Especially when donors, board members, and advancement professionals want to compare campaign totals across institutions.
In “Unplanned Obsolescence: The donor is becoming an after-thought,” Clolery outlines the problem of shrinking donor numbers (not just in higher education but across the nonprofit sector). He argues that a primary cause of declining donor numbers is due to a growing reliance and interest in creating “social entrepreneurship” and quasi-for-profit vehicles for funding. In other words, we don’t have as many donors because we are turning to different revenue streams for funding programs and meeting needs. Perhaps, but I think there is something more fundamental going on.
The fact that everyone seems to be counting campaign totals however they wish or that more nonprofits are utilizing licensing, fees for services, or other entrepreneurial activities to raise revenue are not the fundamental concerns. These are simply two symptoms of a deeper more troubling development for philanthropy.
To better understand what I would suggest buttresses both issues, I invite you to list the top reasons – the most prominent motivating factors – which have encouraged your career choice. What is it that drives and propels your enthusiasm to serve in the philanthropic vineyard? Why are you here?
My guess is that nowhere the top of your list have you included, “to reach the goal of raising X dollars,” or even, “to change the charitable landscape by making nonprofits behave more like for-profits.”
No, those motivators simply aren’t the drivers for the best development and advancement professionals. The most effective folks working in philanthropy are driven, instead, by a deep and abiding passion for mission. Simply put, they are impelled to make the world a better place by serving a meaningful institutional mission.
And here’s the payoff: That same mission motivation drives your donors.
Yes, getting to a campaign goal is a benefit. Yes, being innovative with funding can spark new revenue opportunities. But if you want your donor numbers to increase and you need to raise more resources because the need is growing, donor research clearly tells us that reminding or educating donors on why your mission should matter to them is the first step. And asking them to join with you in support of that mission is the second step.
Givers are not less caring today, they are more confused today. And, I’m afraid, we are compounding the confusion by accentuating pretension rather than purpose and modification rather than magnanimity.