Other People’s Money

People are forever yowling about how the good-for-nothing nonprofit sector should suck it up and learn something about management from the corporate world.  Well, folks, it’s finally happened: The Big Idea has made its move into charities.  And The Big Idea is:

Operate with other people’s money.

Now, the corporate right is fond of stirring the pot by arguing that corporations are doing just that when they give away some portion of their proceeds to charity; God forbid any private money should be used for the public weal.  But for the moment the Nonprofiteer isn’t concerned about the poor downtrodden stockholders whose dividends could be higher but for those pro-charity bandits in the executive suite. 

Instead, she draws your attention to the current craze for suggesting to people that they can solve the world’s problems without inconveniencing themselves at all, simply by encouraging other people to do something.

Example #1, the recent flood of suggestions to bloggers that they put icons on their sites in support of charities: PlayPumps International has been a particularly active promoter of this scheme.  (We shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose: this is a charity whose central argument is that villages in Africa can have clean water if they’re provided with pumps appealing enough to masquerade as toys: the pumps require no work, only play, and children’s power will operate them.  For all I know this is true, but it has some serious overtones of alchemy and the perpetual-motion machine.  Call it The Philanthropist’s Stone.)  "Yo, blogger, don’t bestir yourself!  Don’t give anything away–get your readers to do it for you."

Example #2, unearthed by reporters Danny Hakim and Margot Williams in the New York Times November 28 and December 3, is a scheme by which members of the New York State Legislature pass public money on to nonprofits of their own private choosing–often ones affiliated with campaign contributors.

The Other People’s Money idea arose in response to a commenter who defended the Bristol-Meyers-Squibb "you click and we’ll give" campaign as "encouraging people to actually do something, rather than just sitting around bemoaning the state of the world. In that sense, at least, it’s an opportunity to participate."  Allow the Nonprofiteer to argue that letting George (or Bristol) do it is not doing something, and that the charitable sector is going to be hurting even worse than we are now if we insist on continuing to pretend to people that charity doesn’t involve giving anything up.

Nothing like being the Puritan schoolmarm at a cocktail party–but every nonprofit Board I’ve ever counseled believes that someone else will pay the bills.  And they believe this ("Why don’t we write some more grants?  Get the corporations and foundations to give!") because everywhere they look is some other scheme based on that false notion.  In fact, as long as three-quarters of charitable contributions come from individuals–and that fraction’s held pretty steady for a quarter of a century and more–it’s important to educate individuals that giving isn’t something they can delegate.  They’re supposed to do it themselves.

And not with other people’s money.

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One Response to “Other People’s Money”

  1. Joel Says:

    Don’t most nonprofits operate on other people’s money anyway?

    I don’t think you can compare bloggers hosting badges to pols tenneling money. Bloggers are merely donating space and suggesting to their audience to make a donation. Pols have the direct causal influence and access to said monies; this is much worse than a link.

    Besides, with all the crappy blogs out in the blogosphere, maybe it’s time some of them did some good to promote real 501c3s like a PlayPumps or UNICEF or ONE. As long as the nonprofit is real and the money really goes to them, why not promote a charity instead of a picture of a naked woman or a bad MP3 file.

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