Tag Archives: Fundraising

On the Ice Bucket Challenge and Charity

A few weeks ago marked the second anniversary of the ALS Association’s “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a brilliant fundraising drive that’s success is without precedent and I have a feeling will probably never be repeated. To celebrate, the ALSA announced that they had discovered a gene that could be associated with the disease using the funds generated by the Challenge. Most people applauded, but a few pointed out (justifiably) that it was not the monumental breakthrough that everyone had hoped for. The disease has not been cured, but we do understand it a bit better, now.

Then there was this: “The ice bucket challenge’s scientific success restored my faith in fundraising.” I have been trying to keep my mouth shut about this article for a month now, but I can’t. To say it infuriates me puts it mildly.

While the author (Mary Valle) concludes that the Challenge was a clever and deserved success, she spends a lot of the article griping that “overblown, internet-BS game[s] parading as a fundraiser[s]” can make people “feel like money keeps getting shoveled in to the charity-industrial complex with very little in the way of progress coming out.”

What bothers me is that expecting organizations to deliver miracles because the world suddenly cared for a few moments about a relatively unknown disease is both preposterous and damaging. It ignores the great things that institutions like the ALS Association do every day that we, as a society, take for granted, and that are life-changing to those who need them.

The ALS Association doesn’t just fund research. They have chapters in every state that provide services to people with ALS and their families including support groups, service referral, advocacy, loans to buy equipment, and more. This is not sexy work, but it is absolutely necessary.

Taking this a bit further, nonprofits like ALSA provide services that address problems that fall through the cracks — the ones neither the public or private sectors deal with.

Take Code Savvy, for example. Their work has a pretty simple premise: coding is a necessary skill in today’s workforce and will only continue to grow in importance over the coming years. Schools are not teaching it (kids at some Minneapolis high schools are only allowed to use their computer lab twice a week because there are too many students and too few computers for crying out loud) for want of resources. No for-profit company could implement a mass-education program that would train a huge chunk of the population in this skill cost-effectively, let alone earn a buck in the end.

So, Code Savvy steps in to fix an never-ending problem. Most of what they and other nonprofits do is the day-to-day drudgery of the Necessary.

Nonprofits are perpetually in a quandary. The folks who work at nonprofits are there because they believe there is an unprofitable need that has to be addressed, but at the same time that their organization should not exist in the first place. It’s built into the nonprofit DNA in the form of the universal “Vision Statement” that says what the world should look like when their work is finally complete.

As a friend of mine put it, if you work at a nonprofit, you should always be trying to work yourself out of a job.

I have spent my (admittedly short) working life at nonprofits. It has rarely occurred to me that I could find a job in the for-profit sector that would appeal to me, though I have often considered pursuing work in local government. I do not want to earn a monthly pay check — I want to serve. I strive to live up to the ideal that I am not working for myself and my family alone, but for the betterment of others. A lot of that kind of work is both endless and thankless, but essential. Nonprofits will do it until we have policy solutions and government departments dedicated to solving the problem.

If you think a six million dollar, one-time infusion of cash into a disease that has been known about for decades will result in a cure you are delusional. If you decided to become a sustaining donor, on the other hand, that is commendable, because you understand that there are some things that do not go away easily or quickly. That is where I agree with folks who say you cannot throw money at a problem. You can, however, convince society that an issue is worthy of collective action and then to strategically invest time and resources into its solution.

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Filed under Nonprofiteers, Progressivism, Rant, Things That Happen, Uncategorized

Thoughts on Gratitude

When I was working at a housing rehab nonprofit in New Orleans one of our celebrity donors was working on-site working with my friend Josh. She asked Josh how much he and the rest of us were paid and he explained that we have a living stipend of about $12,000 for ten months.

She said,  “You get $12,000 a month?”

“No,” he said, “$12,000 total for ten months.”

When he had his back turned and was holding up a piece of drywall, he felt her reach into his pocket and leave something there. Josh’s first thought was that her boyfriend, who was present and a lot bigger and stronger than him, was going to beat the shit out of him. Then Josh realized she had put a hundred dollar bill in his pocket.

Josh told this story to me and our supervisor later. Our supervisor just nodded and said, “And you know what you do in a situation like that, right?” We both shook our heads. He said, “You say ‘thank you’ and mean it, and you accept their generosity.”

I hate accepting help. If someone offers their time or money or any other resource to me, I usually decline as politely as possible. God forbid I’d ever ask for it in the first place. At least, that was my way for most of my life, but after that conversation and my term of service in New Orleans, my attitude started to change.

When I moved to the Twin Cities, I finally got a job where I was paid more than a living wage (after about six months of job-searching). It was then that I was finally able to donate my time and money to my friends’ arts projects and causes in which I believe. The first, of course, was NPR.

But, being able to support these organizations is a privilege. I earn more than I need to live and I’m happy to give what I can. With that in mind, that’s ironic because I was irked by how vehemently most people try to refuse help.

I’m a fundraiser, which is a skill set that few people have and even fewer enjoy doing. Since many of my friends and acquaintances are artists, I’ve offered on several occasions to help out by finding grants, patrons, and audiences, but usually people would decline or never follow up.

“Philanthropy is vanity,” so the saying goes. To be upset that people didn’t want my help was childish. But there is something about how refusing help categorically does bother me, but for a different reason than vanity.

In American society, we are raised to believe that hard work leads to success is a natural law just like gravity is the reason objects fall toward the earth. You get out exactly as much as you put in. A person’s success in life is how much wealth they’ve accumulated.

The insidious flip-side of that attitude is that failure is entirely your fault. To accept help is to be weak and shameful, because you shouldn’t need it in the first place. After all, we’re pioneers. If you can’t survive on your own grit, you don’t deserve to. It’s individualism taken to the brutal extreme.

But then, isn’t there something a little insulting about accepting someone else’s help? Who wants to be in a position where they have to accept gratuity from someone better off, let alone admit it? It’s humiliating to say that you can’t make it without assistance.

Maybe not. None of us are self-made and no one lives in a vacuum. As babies and seniors, we’re more or less entirely dependent on other people. We rely on others for our education, resources, and consumers of our work. So why is Giving different?

I don’t believe in altruism. You’re always getting something whenever you give, whether its in an actual monetary transaction or making a donation to a food shelf for the good feeling it gives you. That doesn’t mean that doing something that mostly benefits someone else is invalid because there might be a bit of selfish intent. We all depend on one another. What’s important is realizing that generosity, reciprocity, and empathy are essential.

To give is Good. And so is to receive gratefully.

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Filed under Nonprofiteers, Rant, Things That Happen, Uncategorized