I hope you were able to attend the recent Bridge Conference, which I had the honor of co-chairing. I was especially proud that we could present the important keynote address by Steve Nardizzi, CEO of the Wounded Warrior Project.
Steve delivered a bold and provocative speech on perception and reality in nonprofit work – the perception by some donors, charity ratings agencies, and the press that nonprofits are spending too much money on overhead, and that investing in fundraising is a sign of mismanagement, inefficiency and even fraud; versus the reality that, like all businesses, charities need to be well-funded to fulfill their missions. And to be well-funded, they need to invest in fundraising.
When I interviewed Steve before his keynote, he talked about the frustration we all share that charity evaluators and the press have often distorted and mistaken some charities’ business plans and strategies for malfeasance.
It’s easy to feel defensive when these charges are leveled at our industry. But instead of apologizing, we need to address misperceptions proactively, by leading the discussion and getting ahead of the third-party chatter. Right now, because we’re focused on responding to scandals, the honest fundraisers and good/strategic nonprofits are often unable to get the airtime necessary to make their case. Furthermore, in many cases, fundraisers are content to sit back and ignore these accusations without standing up to set the record straight.
The entire sector must find ways to get in front of the media and tell the truth about how we raise and spend money. Associations must corral and lead this activity, but even beyond what the associations can do, we need a focused PR push on behalf of the entire nonprofit sector to build the public trust in a proactive way. OpEds, letters to the editor, and blogs can help to get the ball rolling.
As an example, Avalon’s Chief Strategy Officer Jennifer Phillips wrote a blog earlier this year, laying out the problem we all face about misperceptions of our industry, and discussing concrete steps to move forward together to dispel the myths about nonprofit business practices.
And let’s not forget our donors. Steve is correct that nonprofit leaders must have the tough and nuanced conversations with their donors – a vital part of fully engaging and bonding donors with your organization is building trust. And nonprofit stakeholders must communicate that their fundraising business model is one that can be trusted.
I urge you to take a look at Steve’s speech and share it with decision makers at all levels of your organization. Then come up with a plan to do your part in spreading the word that fundraising is a vital component of an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.
Nonprofits shouldn’t have to apologize for raising the funds necessary to be effective. Or for employing the solid business best practices that make for-profit companies successful, like investing for the future and hiring the staff they need to get the job done. As Steve so clearly put it, “We fundraise and take action that makes an impact. That’s what charity is about. It is about having an impact, not just good intentions.”