Philanthropy’s Voice of Common Sense

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Do publications ever consider the downside of using list-making as a substitute for stories with depth? The latest example is the May edition of Toronto Life with its gossipy cover feature “Who Gives What.” This up-to-date list of philanthropists – the city’s “millionaire class that cares about the arts” – no doubt has set public tongues wagging.

Unfortunately, I also suspect Toronto’s fundraising class loves the list and has carefully trolled through it. Not that it was intended as a business tool, but the fact it will be used that way says something about how development teams function. Like most business lists, it’s a distraction from more important thinking.

Toronto Life‘s donor register reminded me of a January Philanthropy Journal editorial by Todd Cohen where he despaired of nonprofits that repeatedly dig deeper into the same old contact lists instead of building better communication tools that create broader pools of donors and volunteers. (“Charity needs to tell its tale,” 7 January 2003).

If his indictment of fundraisers’ standard operating procedures is true – that “development often consists of little more than trolling through the same mailing lists and preaching to the choir” – it’s no wonder nonprofits are in trouble. Instead of endlessly courting one individual at a time, charities need to be re-tooled so they can tell their stories to a wider audience. Donors and volunteers are more likely to pitch in if they understand the role charities play and the challenges they face. But first charities have to learn how to tell a story that can hit the reader’s strike zone.

The pattern of Cohen’s commentary has caught my attention. Read them weekly (www.philanthropyjournal.org) and perhaps you’ll wonder, too, if he is philanthropy’s voice of common sense.

Cohen is clearly a fan of nonprofit America. He’s claimed charities are his civic heroes because they take on the tough jobs and find ways to do more with less. At the same time he’s like a stern teacher who doles out tenderness in small measure. Good thing: tough love is what the nonprofit sector needs. As he cautioned readers on 14 April 2003 (“Charity can change”), nonprofits only “dig themselves an even deeper hole when they whine about the hurdles they face, waffle when they make mistakes and posture over the role they play.”

Whether rebuking charities that live hand-to-mouth because of poor management styles, or insisting charities replace their entitlement mindset with a proactive marketing ethic that will make good things happen, Cohen’s fresh thinking and plain talk stands out.

I hope Canadian fundraisers are reading him; it would make more sense than Toronto Life.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 02 May 2003)

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