I flew to Orange County last week to teach a Mission Increase workshop. Ended up sitting next to a guy who saw the book I was reading, which led to a conversation in which we discovered we both were involved with charitable foundations–me with MIF, and him as a board member on three family foundations in Long Beach.
When I learned that his family foundations were interested and involved in giving money to alleviate homelessness, the conversation leaped to an even higher level of engagement. I told him about my time with the Los Angeles Mission and how that led to helping rescue missions across the United States.
“Well, then, maybe you know,” he ventured. “What is the solution to homelessness?”
He explained how in his day job as a Long Beach-based lobbyist he personally encountered a large number of homeless people, and how for years he had been personally and deeply vexed over the question, “How can we really–really–solve this problem?”
“So the homeless shelters that you fund,” I replied. “What do they tell you is the solution?”
He chuckled. “They always tell me that the solution is their particular program…and then the next year they tell me how the problem is getting worse!”
The longer we talked, the more passionate and adamant the man became about how he wanted to do more than just write a check to pay for a program. “I have no doubt these programs do good,” he admitted. “But I want to do more than just good. Good is just a drop in the bucket. You mean to tell me that no one knows what it’s going to take to solve this problem?”
Kevin Salwen, author of The Power of Half, makes a similar point. You’ll recall that this is the book I keep pestering you to read about the Atlanta family that sold its home and then gave half the proceeds to alleviate hunger in Africa.
There’s a great section in the book about when the family goes to New York City to hear proposals from four nonprofits on how to spend the money. Salwen describes each of the nonprofits’ approaches in detail, and it’s truly mandatory reading for nonprofits, as we really have no idea how we come across to donors most of the time.
Salwen is particularly intrigued by The Hunger Project and its executive director, Joan Holmes. As he narrates Holmes’ own personal journey and how she became involved in the issue of hunger, he shares a paragraph that is electrifying in light of this discussion we’ve been having about donors and their new adventures in giving:
As Holmes probed [the approaches to hunger alleviation used by the United Nations and the other NGOs that existed before The Hunger Project was founded], she became even more aghast at the way the developed world approached poverty in the less developed world. First, there was no belief that hunger could be ended; it was seen as a problem that could be relieved in some places, but not ended. When the Hunger Project announced that it believed world hunger could be defeated, even other aid organizations objected, Holmes recalls.
Several points here:
- Donors want to think, reflect, discuss, and hash through the thorny cause-related problems that we nonprofits think, reflect, discuss, and hash through, too. They do not want us to hand them the problem and the solution…especially when the solution is, “Send us more money to fund our program!”
- It’s sad and sobering that nonprofits become more and more driven to fund our programs at the same time that donors are the ones who are becoming more and more driven to actually want to understand and solve the problems that our programs are supposed to address.
- Lest this sound like silly idealism and naivete on the part of donors (in contrast to nonprofits’ superior understanding and steely-eyed hard-nosed pragmatism), consider this quote from Kevin Salwen and then let me know how superior and pragmatic our approach is:
I was born in 1958. In my lifetime the Western world has shelled out over $2.3 trillion to aid less-developed countries–with about one third of the funds going to Africa, health, and education. Two point three trillion dollars. A two, a three, and eleven zeroes. That works out to about a hundred years of Kenya’s total domestic product. Or, taking [his daughter] Hannah’s concept of flying hamburgers over there, the West could have fed Africa’s nearly 1 billion people a McDonald’s double cheeseburger each day for more than six and a half years (assuming the sandwich was on the dollar menu).
It would be laughable if human lives and serious money weren’t at stake. Listen to this: despite the breathtaking flow of funds for clean water, health care, and food, a United Nations study shows that the average poor person in sub-Saharan Africa now lives on seventy-three cents a day–less than in 1973. All that aid, and people are actually worse off. The conclusion is unassailable: we have poured most, if not all, of that $2.3 trillion down the (nonflushable) toilet.
Here’s the great thing about donors: They don’t have to be–and don’t want to be–shills for organizations or programs. They’re just passionate to solve problems. And they’re ready to think, research, and hope.
Great partners…if we just permit them to be.