Saving Nonprofits

Why you won’t read anything an unfamiliar nonprofit sends you–and what that nonprofit should do about it.

If you’ve opened a direct mail solicitation from an unfamiliar nonprofit, chances are I know a few things about you. One, you’re over 50 years old, probably over 60. Two, you may very well end up in the 2.5% of recipients of that letter who write a check to that organization.

More likely, you’re in the much larger percentage of Americans who throw away the letter unread, and the 97.5% of recipients who won’t donate to that organization.

But while Americans get a lot of credit (particularly from conservatives) for the $300 billion they give to charity every year, the vast majority of nonprofits operate as though the size of those two groups is reversed. They’re operating on a 20th century command-and-control charity model that makes a lot of assumptions, such as:

• You are a bank account, not a person; you should give us money and then leave us alone to do our jobs.

• When you ignore the beggar on the street but donate to us, you’re doing the right thing.

• The 2.5% and the $300 billion are the best we can do; we should keep asking total strangers for money and the resulting cycle of donors will fund us in perpetuity.

• Fighting social problems is best done by professionals; we’re going to fix poverty/education/the rainforest/whatever with a five-person team and your money.

Most nonprofit leaders (who are wonderful people) wouldn’t put it quite this way, of course, but they generally operate under most or all of these assumptions. Unfortunately, only one living generation (the eldest) even comes close to sharing them—the rest are going to ask questions like, “Why don’t I matter? Why do I feel weird ignoring that beggar? Can I see what my money is doing? Can I donate on my smartphone? Can I make a suggestion? Can I get involved in some way that means something to me?”

These are often difficult questions for nonprofit leaders to hear. Our modern nonprofit sector is operationally structured in ways that sounded good in 1950, but in hindsight run right against the way humans actually want to relate to each other and things they care about. “Civil society” and “nonprofits” are not synonymous; our nonprofits mostly operate like little bureaucracies designed to keep the amateurs out. But if nonprofits can get out of the 20th century and incorporate a more accurate understanding of human nature and modern times, they can solve their long-term funding problems, and empower Americans to “make a difference” along the way.

Read the full essay in The Statesman

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