How prospects steal from charities

It happened again.

And once again, I placated myself by telling myself this is just the way it is.  We have no right to complain.  We are in the business of being thankful for what we get, and we’re not to complain about what we don’t get.

Or more specifically, we’re not to complain about what gets taken away.

You see, sometimes, in the non-profit world, money is stolen by people and institutions that think they’re trying to help.  They set themselves up to be philanthropic, yet they take money away from charities.

This can mean fewer children get fed.   There are bona fide, real, actual children out there who missed out on food because someone unknowingly stole from the charity that wants to feed them.

It can mean fewer services.  A homeless person misses an opportunity for assistance.  A teenager in distress has nowhere to go.  A victim of domestic abuse goes back home because the shelters are full.

Often, it’s the same people, the same corporations, the same institutions who bang the drum about the lack of accountability among non-profits that are the worst offenders.

So what happened that is sending me on this rant?  I recently experienced just one more very small example of a kind of situation that happens over and over again in the non-profit world.  Instead of shrugging it off as we usually do, I decided that this is a blogworthy topic.

Example 1:

Most corporations have set up an online funding request application system   I do understand this.  A company’s primary duty is to earn money for its shareholders.  While a community investments strategy plays a role, it can’t take over the entire company.  It has to be contained.   Investing in a searchable and sortable database that the nonprofits themselves populate is actually a brilliant idea.

(If you continue reading and believe I’m complaining about  online application systems, go read the last paragraph again.)

I was directed by the community investments person at a large corporation to proceed with an online application.   As with most of these online application sites, there was a document available that listed the questions that I’d be asked during the online process.  It’s recommended to review these questions before starting the online application.   This is very handy.  I always answer these questions in a separate word document before beginning an online application.

This company had many questions not found on other online applications.  I contacted the executive director more than once for specific information, some of which she had to dig for herself.  It took me longer than anticipated to complete the list of questions, but when I finished, I knew the hard part was behind me.  All I had to do was start an online application, and copy/paste the answers from the document into the online form.

However, the questions in the online application form were very different than the list of questions provided prior to starting the application.  I had to call the executive director again and request different information.

Perhaps even worse were questions that made no sense.

For example, one question asked how much money had been raised to date.  The next question asked how much more was needed.

How do you answer that?  It depends on the organization, the cause, the issue.  For an organization that serves the homeless population, how much more is needed?  Ten million?  One hundred million?  One billion?

I was tempted to write “All of it” in the response field.  However, the response field only accepted numbers.

Should I assume the question referred to a specific project?  The application didn’t allow for this.  No previous questions referred to or asked about a specific project.

I was extremely annoyed with this company.

But, as usual, I placated myself.  After all, this company didn’t owe the organization a dime.  By having the online application system in place, the company was inviting the organization to apply.  This company could have gone the route of many others – no online system, no access to the community investments personnel, perhaps no philanthropic presence whatsoever.  I should focus on how nice this company is to even be open to an application.

However,  I regretted the hours of my time and the time of the executive director that could have been saved, if only the list of questions they offered matched the actual questions on the online application.

From the company’s perspective, there are no consequences or implications.  So what if their list of questions doesn’t match the actual questions on the online application?  They have bigger priorities.  Besides, if a charity wants a shot at a donation, they’ll suck it up and like it.

However, from a nonprofit’s perspective, money has been lost.  I’m operating under a contract, and that wasted time could have been put to other use.  The executive director draws a salary, and had to spend her time digging up information.

(If you’re going to argue that we should be volunteering our time, and that nobody in the non-profit world should draw a salary, you’re not even far enough along to be reading this blog.  If we ran the sector according to your model, far less money would be donated, meaning more children would die of starvation, cures for diseases would be farther away, and so on.)

Okay, so let’s move on.  This whole thing was a minor annoyance.  I admit it.

Example 2:

A few days later, I heard from another executive director who faced an even more annoying and disheartening experience.

She was returning home from a friend’s funeral.  During an airport layover, exhausted and depleted, she noticed a text message on her phone from a community investments person she had been in communication with prior to her departure.

Would she be able to present to the committee at 7:30 a.m. the next morning?

This was a surprise because the community investments person had been very clear that their company only funds programs involving poverty reduction.

Our executive director hated to say no to an opportunity.  She texted a response to verify the community investment person’s understanding that her organization dealt with environmental issues, not poverty reduction.

The community investments person assured her that the committee wanted to hear from her.  So our executive director accepted.

It was nearly 3 a.m. before our executive director made it home and got to bed.  After three hours of sleep, she patched herself together and drove to the company’s head office.  When she arrived, she was asked to sit in a waiting room adjacent to a meeting room.   Eventually, the door opened, and to her surprise, a representative from another non-profit was escorted out, with handshakes and thank yous.

She realized that she was not the only person presenting to the committee that morning.

However, being the professional that she was, she did an excellent presentation in front of the committee.  They applauded and indicated how impressed they were with the organization.

However, they concluded, unfortunately they only fund programs dealing with poverty reduction.

Smiling politely, she tactfully reminded them that she had been invited to present.  She suggested that there were many ways the company could support the organization that did not necessarily involve a donation.  Perhaps they would host an event.  Encourage staff to volunteer.  Put up posters.  Sponsor something.

They stood up, murmuring thanks for her time.

“If you were impressed by this organization’s work,” she said as they ushered her to the door, “perhaps you might help us open doors to companies who do support environmental causes.”

“Thank you,” they said again as they guided her of the room, where she encountered the next representative from the next non-profit, sitting in the waiting area.

In her car, she admonished herself to pull it together.  These things happen.  At least she had the opportunity to present to the company.  All opportunities to get the word out were good opportunities, right?

But then she grew angry.

They had wasted her time.  They knew ahead of time that her organization wasn’t involved in poverty reduction.  She even clarified this with the community investments person.

And the community investments person didn’t even bother to inform her that this was a cattle call.  She had been led to believe that the committee had wanted to hear from her organization specifically.

In addition to feeling angry, she became aware of something else – – a feeling of being condescended to.

The message from the company, and from many companies, in fact, is that those of the non-profit world are “less than.”   The company’s time was more valuable than her time.  They might, I repeat, MIGHT, have a little something for her, a little treat, and if she jumps and sits and rolls over, they might give it to her.  Or maybe not.  But her job was to drop everything, show up, sit respectfully, and wait.

Her anger grew.

Why was her time less important than theirs?

Perhaps most insulting of all is that this company was one of the companies contributing to the mess that her organization was trying to clean up.

They were trying to make their shareholders rich.  She was trying to make the world a better place.

When she told me this on the phone, it was shortly after I had closed down the online application to reconsider whether or not I should even complete it.  I was angry at one company, she was angry at another, but the reasons were the same.

We were the supplicants, the companies were the possible benefactors.

This in itself isn’t such a bad thing, and we’d be more willing to take it if it didn’t sometimes result in a net loss for our organizations.  It’s not that we don’t like to wait or don’t like to provide information when requested.  It’s when we’re treated with the old “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality that we become upset.

We’re not begging.

We’re cleaning up your messes.  We’re fixing things.  We’re making your world a better place.  Whether you choose to support us or not, our work is just as important as your work.

We are so noble that we are willing to let you behave like we’re stuff on the bottom of your shoe, because doing so MIGHT help us further our important causes.  We’re willing to do that.  That’s how good we are.

We prefer the much healthier donor-as-partner relationship, based on mutual respect and the furthering of all our agendas.  We prefer it when you’re excited about the causes, and not only want to donate money, but you also want to come to our events and tell your friends about us.  We like to get your feedback and your ideas.  We like you to join our boards.

That’s all Fundraising 101 stuff.

Unfortunately, throughout my non-profit career, these “We’re important, you’re not so much” scenarios have repeated themselves over and over, in slightly different situations, but the overriding message remains the same.

How many prospect visits have we made, where the prospect was called away but didn’t think to tell us, and we only learn about it after we show up at his or her office?

How many hours, days, and weeks have we put into developing proposals and presentations to prospects who strongly hint that there WILL be a substantial donation at the end of it all, only to find out that the odds of actually receiving support were slim all along?

Many of us draw salaries – not huge ones, but salaries, nonetheless.  When we invest our time sitting in waiting rooms for appointments that don’t happen, filling out needlessly complicated online applications, or endure any number of indignities that take up our time needlessly, this takes money away from the services our organizations provide.

Additionally, there are opportunity costs to consider.  Instead of working my way through one poorly-crafted online application system, I could have completed three other online applications instead.  This may have increased the odds of receiving funding for the organization I was working for.

Again, if you think I’m whining, you don’t get it.

I’m not complaining about the inconvenience or the waste of time itself.  I’m complaining about the cost this has on a small charity already struggling to survive.  Most are already operating on the edge.  Cumulatively, these small and seemingly innocent thefts could tip a charity over the edge and out of business.

Do I have a proposed solution?  Not really.  However, I’d propose that if a person or a company is trying to be philanthropic, the way they treat all charities that interact with them says a lot about their true motivations.  Are they philanthropic or aren’t they?

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