Too big

Of all the reasons cited to give or not to give a philanthropic donation, “you’re too big” is the one that I have the hardest time digesting.

First, a clarification.  In my experience, most people who say that they want the size of their donation to be significant relative to the size of the organization they’re supporting rarely say “I am really good at spotting great startups but don’t feel like my expertise extends to bigger organizations.”  Rather, the underlying message seems to be, “when you were smaller, I knew my gift made a difference.  Now that you’re bigger, I’m not so sure.”

Analytically, we can agree that size is a poor predictor of effectiveness (you can be big and effective or big and ineffective; small and effective and small and ineffective).  Yet the concern, more often than not, seems to be size itself.  There’s rarely any overt assertion that through growing the organization became less effective (to wit, often one would imagine that size provides some scope for efficiencies).

In the face of this critique, rather than take the question at face value and conclude that we are not as good as we could be at communicating our own effectiveness (read: we need better metrics), instead we slice and dice ourselves up programmatically to create a closer approximation of transparency and accountability.  We make the big black box of “what we do” smaller – so we communicate a sense of “this is where your money is going” – as a proxy for answering the real question – “how effective have you been?”

It’s true, we won’t persuade all the people all of the time.  Smaller just feels right to some people, and that’s going to be their (appropriate) choice no matter what we are able to show them.  Nevertheless, our job is to be able to answer, in a convincing and rigorous fashion, how much change we created with the money we were given.

I’m not talking about “for $20 you can ________” (fill in the blank).  I’m talking about real change at a big scale, shared with an educated, interested philanthropist who is open to a real conversation.

When have you seen this work best?  Worst?

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