Dan Pallotta at TED

I had the privilege of attending the TED conference last week – a bounty of new ideas, optimistic predictions, and insightful reflections on the world today and the world as it could be tomorrow.

The most challenging and exciting talk for the nonprofit sector was by Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable and Charity Case.  Dan made a name for himself creating the then-ubiquitous AIDS and breast cancer walks and rides – these events raised $108 million and $194 million for charity, respectively, according to Dan’s numbers.  Dan’s pitch, which he has been making for years but never as clearly or effectively as he did last Friday, is that we are never going to solve the world’s toughest problems if allow the prevailing orthodoxy to rule in the nonprofit sector and in the minds of the philanthropists who fund them.

Dan Pallotta at TED

Dan Pallotta speaking at TED (Photo: James Duncan Davidson)

Dan has been a lightning rod in the nonprofit sector for more than a decade because he has been such a vocal, unabashed voice for change.  He was fully transparent about this, starting his talk explaining how challenging and frustrating it was when his company was shut down because of the backlash that came when it became clear that putting on the rides/walks used up a big portion of the funds that people raised – despite the nearly $300 million net raised for these charities.

The two most controversial points Dan made in the talk were about nonprofit pay and fundraising.  On nonprofit pay, the line I found most memorable was, “You can make $50 million in a year selling violent video games to kids and they put you on the cover of Wired magazine; but if you make $500,000 as a nonprofit executive director working on solving some of the world’s toughest problems they will run you out of town.”  Indeed.

On fundraising, Dan’s big point is that if you can take a philanthropic dollar and turn it into $10 or $100, then it is absurd not to do so and even more absurd for a philanthropist to feel like you are wasting her money when you spend it in this way.

What I love about Dan’s talk is the conversations it forces us to have, ones that get to the heart of what philanthropy is, why people give, and what it will take to make real change in the world.

To me the conversation starts with a basic question: do you think that the people who work for nonprofits are adding value; or, put more technically, is the amount of good they create – in terms of the problem you’d like them to solve – greater than they amount that they are paid.  (Ironically, it’s easiest to figure out this question when you analyze a person on the fundraising because you can easily quantify the funds she raises against how much she costs the organization.) If you don’t feel like nonprofit organizations/their staff add value, then it’s easy to conclude that the organization itself should take up as few resources as possible.

Philosophically, one wants as much ______ (money, water, chickens, anti-malarial bednets) to land in the hands of the needy recipients as is humanly possible, and so one wants a nonprofit sector whose only role is to do the minimum possible to make those ________ (things) end up in others’ hands, and to eat up as little as possible of each donated dollar to make that happen along the way.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you believe that there’s a thorny set of problems that haven’t yet been solved in the world, then we need the most highly capable, intelligent, hard-working, long-lasting people on the planet to solve those problems.  So making sure one has the tools to get and keep the best people becomes vital and, more importantly, one quickly understands the limitations of a worldview that says that those people are “overhead” (a.k.a. something to be minimized.)

Of course the world does not exist in black and whites.  Development professionals who live in gated communities in multi-million dollar homes, separated by barbed wire fences and Range Rovers from the people they ostensibly are in the business of serving – well that’s obviously hugely problematic.  So the message isn’t “more pay is better.”  We need some basic checks in the system or it’s never going to work.  At the same time we need to ask ourselves whether the system we have today is oriented towards “efficiency” (which itself is elusive) at the expense of effectiveness: I could easily waste very little of your money but never actually manage to solve the problem you ultimately hope to solve, by shoveling 90 cents out of every dollar into direct aid but never change the system that created the need for aid and charity in the first place.

While we know there are no easy answers we cannot pass on asking the tough questions, on having an out-loud conversation about whether this system we have built is actually working. Because many think it is.  A philanthropist I spoke with after Dan’s talk told me that he found the talk to be very troubling: Dan, he said, does not understand the mindset of the philanthropists at all and he completely missed the mark.  “If I find a startup that I believe in,” this philanthropist said (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m happy to put up some risk capital in the knowledge that it might succeed or it might fail.  But when I dip into my philanthropic pocket, I want the charity to treat that capital as precious, to spend it wisely, and to make sure as much of it as possible goes to those in need.”

“….treat that capital as precious…” is the key phrase there.  Guard it, protect it, mete it out carefully and cautiously and be sure you don’t make any mistakes as a steward of that capital.

“So,” I asked, “I absolutely can understand that you want nonprofits to careful with your money.  But where do they go for risk capital?  Or investment capital?”

Unfortunately we couldn’t finish that conversation, but I feel better equipped to have it thanks to Dan’s talk, thanks to seeing Dan’s outrage at how backwards the system we created is, thanks to statistics like the one Dan shared that, since 1970, while only 144 nonprofits have grown to more than $50 million in annual revenues, more than 46,000 for-profits have crossed that threshold. Put another way, a new non-profit is less than 1/300th as likely than a new for-profit to grow big enough to have enough scale to really matter, to have enough scale to figure out what they are doing and have some heft to actually solve a problem.

That doesn’t feel right.

What it feels like, what Dan is saying is that we’re asking nonprofits to take on the toughest problems in the world, problems that the private and the public sector still haven’t managed to solve, and to do it with one hand (“you can’t spend money to make more money”) and one leg (“you can’t use my donation as risk capital”) tied behind our collective back.

Dan’s talk isn’t online yet but you can see a more detailed summary of it on the TED blog.

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4 Responses to Dan Pallotta at TED

  1. Joey Katona says:

    Very insightful post, Sasha. I’m surprised you haven’t yet written about Amanda F. Palmer’s TED on “the art of asking” — seemed so up your alley… http://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_palmer_the_art_of_asking.html.

    Do you have any thoughts to share on the hefty TED price tag? No big deal since the talks are available online for free shortly thereafter? Were you impressed by the audience? Why/How were you there, etc?

  2. Eric Pratum says:

    I saw Dan speak a few years ago, and working in nonprofit fundraising myself, his message resonated with me and my experience.

    I don’t know if he had time to talk about it at TED, but one thing he discussed in the talk I saw was the sapping away of talent from the nonprofit sector. In short – for-profit companies cherry pick the highest performing students from college because they can afford to pay more, and what student can seriously turn down a for-profit that can sometimes offer then double what they would make at a nonprofit? Essentially, what this leaves us with is a nonprofit field full of people that probably weren’t qualified enough to get “better” jobs and also would not necessarily have chosen that line of work had they had a better paying option, and this results in unfortunately lower ability, less efficient, more wasteful workers and programs in many cases, or as startup folks might say, all of the 10x employees end up on the for-profit side, and all of the 1x-2x employees end up in nonprofits… Or, that was at least the essence of part of his talk, I believe.

    While I have worked with some amazing people in nonprofits, I believe this part of his message is generally true. After 10, 20, 30 years in nonprofits, it’s not like you wouldn’t know your field very well, but if you were at the bottom of your class and so was your boss and your boss’ boss, who is going to train you to be innovative, groundbreaking, or a thought leader unless you somehow have it within yourself to do it alone while also keeping in mind that you’ve been getting paid half of what your former classmates get and yet you have all of the same goals of owning a house, putting your kids through college, etc?

  3. Sasha says:

    Joey I thought Amanda’s talk was incredible.

  4. I liked Pallota’s TED talk, and largely agree. But I choked on the compensation part.

    I wrote a partially-dissenting (to Pallota’s view) opinion about it as part of my Newsvine article about his TED talk. I’d include it, here, but it’s too long.

    SEE: http://bit.ly/15NBuSV

    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

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