- Wed, August 05 2009
- Filed under: Marketing essentials
There are two interesting criticisms floating around regarding donors.
The first one says wealthy donors and foundations tend to be fickle in their giving. They’re eager to support innovative and new efforts, but not necessarily good at retaining and expanding investments in what’s older and proven. A couple of weeks ago, I had drinks with some wise nonprofit people and one of them told the story of getting half a grant - because his nonprofit was “too established and successful” compared to startup groups. This is a great example of this problem. Solid isn’t as sexy as new and different. But it should be.
I call this the Albino squirrel problem. This is an Albino squirrel on Q Street in Georgetown, here in DC. I see it many mornings on my way to work. I stopped and paid it attention (and even put it on Flickr) because it was new and different. Maybe one of these days the creature will get a grant.
A recent book goes deeper into this issue, beyond the Albino squirrel and my superficial analysis to the reasons for and toll of “Billions of Drops in Millions of Buckets.” Author Steven Goldberg says we’ve given too much money in too many places with too little impact. He maintains big donors should be more willing to concentrate massive resources in single approaches over the long haul to take promising programs to scale. In other words, think centralized planning for social change. Goldberg urges concentrated giving on national projects, based on an impact index that ranks nonprofits by their effectiveness. An excellent review of this book by William A Schambra of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center is here.
While I’m all for developing a greater attention span among big donors so that longer term investment is made in what works, I agree with Schambra’s assesment that this argument for centralized giving goes too far and neglects the local groups and “the small groups - with their intimate understanding of local conditions and needs - that may, in aggregate, do the most good.”
Which gets to the second criticism I hear too often - that individual donors (not just big donors) need to stop supporting any old local organization and act more like foundations, seeking “high impact” giving prospects. There seems to be a movement afoot to demand that donors like you and me insist on less “soft” criteria for giving (like what they love or is personally relevant) and critically examine ROI based on standards like those described by Goldberg. I believe this will never happen among the masses. Most people give for profoundly personal and emotional reasons, and it’s going to take forever to get them to think like philanthropic investment bankers. If big donors go for the Albino squirrels, individual donors go for the pet squirrels. And that’s not going to change any time soon.
I’m not an analyst of social impact, so I’ll leave that to folks like Goldberg. But I will say this: if you’re chasing a grant, don’t forget to show how your approach is fresh and reflective of a foundation’s latest “strategy.” And if you’re courting small donors, show how you’re relevant to them. We’ve got a long way to go before any of that changes. Don’t hold your breath for the deluge into a single bucket.