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You're selling forest. You're not selling trees.
Tom Ahern

November, 2011

It is a question that comes up often enough: Operating support, how do you sell it?

 

Short answer: Don't bother trying.

 

.... A reader inquires .... 

 

A veteran fundraiser newly hired by a chapter of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) was writing for advice.

 

CASA stumped her from a messaging standpoint: "We use all our donated money to support staff. But supporting staff is a hard sell to the public."

 

Some data:

  • CASA is a lovely organization founded by a Seattle juvenile court judge in 1977.
  • CASA uses carefully screened and trained volunteers to watch over kids that a court has removed from abusive or neglectful parents.
  • While these kids are in the limbo of temporary foster care, there's a CASA volunteer nearby ... watching, reporting, comforting, and often testifying in court. If you're thinking "guardian angel," you're not far off. It's an exhausting role. A typical volunteer lasts about a year, I'm told.
  • I was also told that for every 30 foster children served, CASA must employ one staff member, to manage the volunteers. I.e., if there are 300 hundred kids in CASA, there will be 10 paid staff. And donors pay their salaries. The system's been around for over 30 years.

Let's return to the original lament: "We use all our donated money to support staff. But supporting staff is a hard sell to the public."

 

Absolutely true. And absolutely beside the point.

 

.... Blind justice .... 

 

Your overhead doesn't deeply interest donors. They care about the mission. Overhead makes the mission possible. End of story. 

 

Overhead does interest "evaluators" like Charity Navigator, of course. 

 

And due kudos: Charity Navigator has shined light on some pretty dark behavior.

 

It peeled the paint from common scams like "friends of the police" associations where very little good is done and professional telephone fundraisers pocket most of the money. 

 

It regularly flogs "Highly Paid CEOs at Low-Rated Charities." 

 

But evaluators have also been guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Charity Navigator measures an indicator, a ratio (overhead expense vs. program expense); and implies it's the whole truth.

 

It's not. The ratio says nothing conclusive about "mission effectiveness." A ratio-obsessed evaluation methodology is like trying to shell peanuts with a sledge hammer. Expect collateral damage. 

 

Let's face it: doing business well can sometimes require lots of overhead. In that regard, charities are no different than for-profits.  

 

A large, sophisticated, global organization needs a top-notch human resources department, for instance. That's overhead.

 

A forward-looking organization aimed at rapid growth hires well ... and pays accordingly ... for talent, knowledge, and experience. That's overhead, too.

 

I know a fundraising specialist who makes a $300,000 annual salary. Is he worth that much to his charity? Absolutely: the unique program he set up and continues to manage brings in tens of millions in gifts every year.

 

Yet his fat paycheck violates a core prejudice lurking in many minds: People who work for nonprofits shouldn't get rich. If you serve the poor, the "thinking" goes, shouldn't you be poor as well? Abjectly poor, if possible?

 

Well, no.

 

Talent, experience, and good performance are - and bloody well should be - expensive.

 

And a chronically underfunded infrastructure just holds your mission back. For a full articulation of the case for a more capitalist approach to charity work, read Dan Pallotta's head-turning book, Uncharitable

 

.... Bottom line: R U good at what U do? ....

 

When donors make gifts to CASA, they hope to help down-on-their-luck foster kids survive a miserable, confusing, traumatic experience.

 

Donors want to relieve pain. They want to fight injustice. They want to heal and help and cure. 

 

CASA employees make that possible. They are part of the machinery. But donors don't care about the machinery. They care about what comes out of the machine. 


Insiders get obsessed by details because they live in the metaphorical "sausage factory." They watch the machinery work. Outsiders (donors) keep their eye on other things: your promise and your results.

If you could get good results with a magic wand, donors would eagerly fund the wand.

Cure cancer with a magic wand? Lovely. Reverse global warming with a magic wand? Count me in. Help some beaten-up kid find a loving home, all with a magic wand? It would be my privilege and my pleasure.

The fact that CASA pays staff to achieve its results is "too much information."

It's like trying to sell an alarm clock by talking about its internal circuitry. I'm buying a device that will wake me up reliably. I don't care how it works.
 
Check out www.ahercomm.com


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