Dear Nonprofiteer, How much is that display in the window?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I raise money for a women’s organization battling domestic violence.  A big department store has offered us the opportunity to be its featured charity for the fall quarter.  This means the store would plaster our name and message in the display windows at all its branches.  In addition, we could have a benefit event consisting of an evening of private shopping for our invited guests, with 10% of the net proceeds going to us.  Finally, we’d get 1% of the store’s retail sales for the whole quarter.

To me, this is a no-brainer: take the money (and publicity) and run.  But my Board of Directors is opposed, saying things ranging from "We’re not about shopping" to "This is another example of the exploitation of women."  Who’s right?

Signed, Money-Grubber

Dear Money,

You are; how’s that for simple?  Even if there weren’t money involved, the high-profile endorsement of your work by a mainstream department store will encourage people to think about violence against women and take it seriously.  As you know all too well, many people find battered women unsympathetic, based on some variation of the question "Why doesn’t she leave?"  Any opportunity to answer that question and demonstrate the endorsement of your message by men (who, by hypothesis, own or control the department store) can only be to the good.

But your Board’s objections are familiar, and so need to be taken seriously.  There’s the "This isn’t our mission" objection, which is appropriate when accepting money actually hurts the people you’re trying to serve.  (An example of this is CARE’s decision to refuse federal food aid because the aid depresses farm prices in the recipient countries, thereby decreasing their ability to achieve food self-sufficiency.  Whether or not CARE is correct on the merits is, for these purposes, beside the point; its Board has taken a stand based on its principles and understanding of the facts.)  It’s also an appropriate objection when the donated money requires you to divert time to doing something you otherwise wouldn’t–say, offering fashion advice to battered women.  Your Board is right that the monetary tail shouldn’t wag the program dog.

But "We’re not about shopping" doesn’t fall into either category: it’s just a statement of a Board member’s personal prejudices.  In that sense, it’s the equivalent of an arts charity’s opposition to the war in Iraq: an example of using Platform A for Purpose B.  Your Board members are welcome to  boycott American consumerism, but they should do it on their own time.

The second objection is more serious: that somehow the display of information about your mission will  exploit women, contributing to their objectification and therefore to additional domestic violence.  But it’s also a bigger stretch, unless the store intends to retain Helmut Newton* as its photographer on the project.  Assuming, though, that the display will be respectful of your clients (not using their pictures without permission, of course, or somehow romanticizing their victimization–which you can always prevent by refusing the money at the last minute if the images prove inappropriate), it’s false to suggest that drawing attention to domestic violence will encourage it.  We all know that the reverse isn’t true: all the years of silence on the subject haven’t made it go away.

In general, the Nonprofiteer advocates taking money from all sources, though there are mission-related exceptions.  Women’s groups accepting Playboy money?–not a problem.  Women’s groups offering their clients as Playboy centerfolds?–big problem.  But what you’re talking about doesn’t approximate selling out your mission to an exploiter; it’s accepting help in promoting that mission.  You go for it, girl!


*An "artist" whose "erotic" work features injured and helpless women


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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, How much is that display in the window?”

  1. Tidy Sum Says:

    This is a fascinating question that I plan on using in my class.

    I love it because it does not have an easy answer.

    There are always social and political advantages and disadvantages.

    Taking money from anyone is never a no brainer.

    I wish that more nonprofit staff and their boards would take the time to have the conversation you are having.

    My gut today says something is icky about the proposition but I am open to what others might say.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I’d be eager to hear a more extensive account of what is “icky about the proposition” of drawing attention to a problem and providing funds for its solution. Is what’s salient the fact that the subject is domestic violence? Would you feel the same way about my notion of having restaurants raise awareness of hunger by offering their customers half-portions and donating half the menu price to food pantries? You’re right that accepting money is never a no-brainer because s/he who has the gold makes the rules and charities need to be sure that those don’t conflict with their own rules; but this one strikes me as unexceptionable. Please let me know what your class thinks!

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