Opinion
10:46 am
Fri November 16, 2012

Five Surprising Things About Philanthropy

Originally published on Fri November 16, 2012 9:55 am

Howard H. Stevenson and Shirley Spence are the authors of Getting to Giving: Fundraising the Entrepreneurial Way.

In the debate about the fiscal cliff, it is clear that private philanthropy will have a continuing and growing role. As a donor, nonprofit board member (including at NPR) and fundraiser, I've learned some things over the years about philanthropy. Here are a few things that may surprise you about the art of doing good.

1. No margin, no mission
That's how the nun in charge of a hospital put it when we complimented her on her good work. Similarly, a friend advises the boards to think of themselves as "tax-exempt" rather than "nonprofit." As I see it, nonprofits are the very definition of an entrepreneurial venture; they identify a problem or opportunity and assemble the resources to meet it. It all starts with an economic model that may include earned income, membership revenues and philanthropy. It may be fun to talk about exciting new programs, but I've witnessed the perils of ignoring the numbers.

2. It's not a competition
In development offices, I see the "That's MY prospect!" attitude. Among nonprofit organizations, I see the "We're so much more important than they are!" attitude. Yes, there are fundraising needs to be met — and finite donor dollars. But, in my experience, high-performing nonprofits are far more likely to be cooperative than competitive. Summer Search, a leadership development program for low-income students, collaborates with other organizations to provide a fuller range of services. It's better for the kids to be served by organizations with specialized skills; it's better for Summer Search and its partners to spread overhead; and donors often contribute to multiple players, as they want the whole package for students.

3. People do want to give
Some say that cutting charitable tax deductions would kill philanthropy, but I don't believe it. In my experience, people — especially affluent people — are sincerely interested in having an impact on something they consider important. But, with or without a tax break, you have to target people who share your mission. Craft a compelling story, geared to the four questions that every donor should ask: First, are you doing important work? Second, are you well managed? Third, will my gift make a difference? Fourth, will the experience be satisfying to me?

4. People don't like to ask
Many nonprofit board members, executive directors and volunteer fundraisers say they hate fundraising. They assume that it's about hearing "no." They feel like they're in unfamiliar, even hostile territory, and that asking for money feels like begging. Luckily, if you've done your homework, people say "yes" more often than not. Fundraising is measurable, too — you know exactly how you're doing, and you meet some really wonderful people. The key is to be personally passionate about what you're "selling." It's not about you; it's about the greater cause you're supporting.

5. It's a real job
Once, I Googled "nonprofit myths" for the fun of it. I was startled to see less-than-motivational myths about nonprofit careers, ranging from not existing at all ("Nonprofits are staffed by volunteers") to being below-living-wage havens for corporate castoffs. That attitude and the reality that goes with it are changing, as they must. Set the standards for both performance and reward high, and you will attract great people to do important work.

To meet these challenges, philanthropic leaders — whether paid or volunteer — need to face their economic realities head-on, work cooperatively, motivate action, and make it clear to all that the shared goal of improving the world is both desirable and achievable.

Shirley Spence, a co-author of Getting to Giving: Fundraising the Entrepreneurial Way, contributed to this piece.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.