The $30 million question

I’ve just heard a story of a major nonprofit organization that receives tens of millions of dollars annually from a single donor – around half of its operating budget – but is laying off staff because they don’t have enough unrestricted operating cash.

Again, Dan Pallotta’s awesome TED talk notwithstanding, we find ourselves having the same conversation, one that boils down to: is it a wasteful to pay nonprofit professionals to do their jobs well?

I wonder if it is we in the nonprofit space who need more guts when we take on this question. Maybe it’s time to say something along the lines of, “if you want your money to go directly into the hands of very poor people who need it, you should do just that and give to Give Directly.” GiveDirectly is optimized for this, they are efficient and transparent in their operations, they rigorously study their results, and they’ve shown the effectiveness of direct cash transfers for creating both short- and long-term improvements in people’s lives. It’s a completely legitimate way to help others, and it’s a great benchmark against which to measure our work.

“Or,” we should have the courage to continue, “you can have the point of view that the programmatic work that we’re doing is better than giving cash.” “Better” can be because it does different things (fights corruption); “better” can be because the impact of giving a dollar is more than $1 (investing in a scalable social business); “better” can be because of long-term return on investing that’s higher than the social return on giving cash (supporting a child’s education).

“But,” we should be sure to say, “if you believe that the IT that we do matters, if you believe that there is something real that we are bringing to the table that goes above and beyond your money ending up in the hands of someone who will benefit from it, then you’re saying that our judgment, our relationships, our expertise, our capacity for oversight, and our ability to create leverage for each dollar you give is real. This means that you trust this judgement and our expertise. So please give in a way that respects that judgment and expertise, or don’t give at all.”

Our homework is to really look in the mirror and evaluate why what we’re doing is, in fact, better than the money going directly to our beneficiaries. And, once we’ve sorted that out, we must have the courage to make that case and the willingness to look someone in the eye and say, “if you don’t believe this, then you shouldn’t give to us in the first place.”

One thought on “The $30 million question

  1. Donation As Investment | Jon's Font of Worthless Information

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