Enlisting the Amateurs

How nonprofits can raise more money and do more good by empowering their donors.

From Philanthropy Daily:

Perhaps the most common moral dilemma encountered by a middle-class American involves a homeless person. For a city professional, it’s usually a beggar he passes while walking from the subway to work. For a suburban soccer mom, it might be a person holding a sign at the end of a highway off-ramp. In any case, the question is this: Do I give him money?

The dilemma is created by the fact that I don’t know this person. Whether I am a liberal or a conservative, common opinion has told me to ignore the need of the person before me. Either I’m biased against him and figure he could get a job if he wanted one (and he’ll probably spend my money on beer), or I’m aware of the system and I know that the best way for him to get long-term help will be through a local nonprofit or social service agency. For one in a hundred people, the guilt will prove too much and a few dollars will make their way from a wallet to an outstretched hand. For most of the rest, a strange scene will play out, as a human who is being asked for help will not only decline to give it—he will completely ignore the person asking for it, passing by while determinedly avoiding eye contact.

We all know there is something profoundly wrong about this scene, even when we are the ones acting it out. Even someone who donates generously to the local food bank or United Way will ignore this person in need. The scale of our cities, and the consequent centralization and professionalization of our methods of dealing with poverty have created a situation where the sufferer before us has been depersonalized, as have we. He is a unit in a social service system, and we are the funders of that system. We interact through the system and its agents, and any direct interaction between us as humans actually hurts the system’s ability to work properly.

The scene is a powerful illustration of how the social sector has evolved to reflect and perpetuate inhumane elements of late 20th-century life. The relational connections between helper and helped, between charities and their funders, have largely been lost.

Needless to say, nonprofits are filled with dedicated, compassionate people who are in many cases doing solid work and changing lives. But often, they could be doing better work if they had more manpower, fresh ideas, and better funding—if they were hubs of knowledge and resources that could channel the energy and funds of much larger networks of people.

This report will show that by better understanding human nature and tapping into improved engagement practices, nonprofits can not only end the disconnect between the personal and professional (illustrated by the Passing-the-Beggar scenario). They can also dramatically increase their support base and their operational effectiveness.

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