Who “the funders” really are

I’ve made the mistake against which I counsel others, of talking about "the funders" as though the most significant financial players in the nonprofit community were the institutions whose names appear in public-broadcasting credits: the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation and so on.  But three-quarters of all gifts to charity come not from foundations or corporations or the government, but from individuals.  So why do so many nonprofits–and, especially, so many nonprofit Boards of Directors–face every funding crisis with the same solution: "Write some more grants"?

There’s the uncharitable interpretation, which is that Boards like grant-writing because someone else does it; but more likely Boards like the idea of grant-writing because they watch a lot of public broadcasting and think that’s where the money is.  Also, they know how large (or small) their own gifts are, and they imagine that a single $5000 gift is less work to secure than 10 $500 gifts–or, more likely, 100 $50 gifts.

Well, yes, sort of.  But the problem with that $5000 grant is two-fold: it’s usually tied to a single project, which may or may not be the highest priority of the nonprofit; and it’s rarely renewable, because institutional funders have the attention span of fruit flies.  Individual gifts, by contrast, are ordinarily for general operating expenses, and individuals are creatures of habit: once they’ve given you money they’ll be apt to give it to you again and again and again unless and until you offend them.  Many charities do manage to offend individual donors (failure to thank will do that), but it takes work.

So invest the most time where you’ll get the most money.  Even if yours is a grassroots organization and/or serves poor people, you can raise money from individuals.  Details on how to follow.

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