Ending the Culture of Expectation

Can nonprofits survive if the federal government tries to end the culture of expectation by implementing a “hand-up, not a hand out” style of support?

Preston Manning’s June 7 article in the Globe and Mail (“The Election of our Discontent”) reports on the changing conception Canadians have about the role of the federal government. Apparently we now want to see government as a facilitator of change and not, in the post-war liberal fashion, as a prime mover or provider of grand solutions to big problems.

Many in the social sectors will undoubtedly see this as evidence of the Harper government’s “hidden agenda.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a majority Conservative government would try to change the social sector’s long-standing culture of expectation: our nonprofits are predisposed to expecting handouts from government instead of trying to be self-sufficient and sustainable. With a fast-diminishing appetite for funding black holes, it looks like government may become more like venture philanthropists, willing to give a hand-up, but not a hand out. Organizations better get used to standing on their own two feet.

Government may not want to be responsible as the “vision achiever” – and that’s okay – but it will have to provide direction because social sector organizations don’t have the imagination to improve. The current system of nonprofit marketing is broken, and without an injection of new ideas, the sector can’t change for the better.

Left to their own devices, they’ll continue relying on the same-old tired tactics. Social sector organizations (not to mention most for-profits) continue defining branding in very narrow terms, as “a short-term mechanism to grab some media attention before quickly moving on to something else,” wrote Henry Tam in Demos’ The Collaborative State (2007). No wonder we talk about “donor fatigue”: How many walks, runs, or bike rides do people want to go on, how many dinners can they attend, how many ribbons can they wear on one coat? How many mass mailings can people get – and throw away – or phone calls that people hang-up on before fundraisers get the message?

You can’t differentiate with sameness, yet their tactics never seem to change.

Organizations overlook the fact that fundraising isn’t just about separating people from their cash. It should be an identity project, but this gets forgotten because their “snatch and run” style of fundraising looks so appealing and easy. “People should understand us,” is the common excuse. Well, they don’t. These events aren’t building strong brands or sustainable organizations – in fact they virtually assure fundraising organizations are seen as continuously cap-in-hand. Some identity.

What’s causing this “sameness virus” is a lack of vision, and that’s the nut government has to help crack. The sector’s organizations need new approaches that help them better differentiate, communicate, and effectively build communities that will support their works.

If the government turns off the tap (or, at least lessens the flow), perhaps the sector will simply be getting what it deserves for its lack of initiative: instead of blaming government, we should be pointing the finger at the sector itself for failing to persuade people of its value.

Nonprofits better resolve to understand the alchemy of content. It’s hard to connect with organizations that don’t effectively tell their story. Instead of relying on marketing gimmicks that actually diminish perceptions of their value – then grousing about being seen as irrelevant, or under-valued – these organizations must concentrate on making what they know indispensable. Content has to be put to better use in an effort to create a broad mission-supporting brand. In fact, putting content at the centre of their brand building effort should be at the top of its agenda: packaging well-differentiated stories that convey an organization’s unique expertise, and using this content to nurture the interests of a wide audience.

Until they become intrusive about communicating what they know to a broad audience – start telling people everywhere about their public value – they will remain irrelevant and under-funded, little more than a “nice-to-have” feature of society.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether you blame donor fatigue, a poor economy, nonprofit management, or government cutbacks – the point is, now is the time for the social sector to change its approach to branding and fundraising. But government will have to show them how so, ultimately, organizations can do it for themselves; start teaching these new ideas if social sector management thinking – and the culture of expectation – is to be turned on its head.

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