Artful Dodger

Here’s a story that has all the plot elements of a Hollywood spy thriller. International intrigue! Soviet agents! Stolen art! A fabulously wealthy politician caught red-handed! Money, money, money! And – I’m not kidding – philanthropy.  Here’s my rendition, based on historian Olivier Zunz’s excellent new book Philanthropy in America. Continue reading

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Best-Kept Secrets

Here’s the scene: A nonprofit board is discussing how to attract new supporters.

One board member, in an exasperated but sincere tone, says, “But it’s so hard to interest people… because, well, no one knows about us.” And then the board member adds these cringe-inducing words: “We’re the area’s best-kept secret. You have to do something to change that!”

Let’s analyze this line of argument. Continue reading

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Hard Sell

A friend of mine runs a well-respected rehab center for addicts and alcoholics. I say, “well-respected,” and not “well-known,” because outside of those in the court system and the rehabilitation and social work communities, nobody pays much attention to what she and her staff do. It’s not the kind of celebrity rehab center that attracts the Lindsay Lohans of the world. It’s a gritty inner-city facility where a chronic offender lands after a traffic accident or a near-death experience from an overdose.

“We’re not puppies and kids,” my friend says, drawing a contrast with organizations that can capture the sympathies (and dollars) of the general public through heartwarming pictures and stories. Hers is a place with locked doors. The client list is confidential and few “alumni” think to support the agency. It’s a challenging place where important things happen out of sight.

Getting people to donate to organizations providing core services to people in need is a tough sell. Continue reading

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Roger’s Rule

The most generous donors don’t want to pay for everything themselves.

When I was a young (still in my twenties) executive director of a small human service agency we had a remarkable older gentleman on our board. Roger had vast experience nationally in finance, investments, the corporate world, and nonprofits. He was wise.  When he spoke at meetings, which was fairly infrequently, people would really sit up and listen. And he was generous, both because he had the capacity, and because charitable giving gave him great pleasure.

But although Roger was sincere in his approach to charitable giving, he was also rather crafty and strategic. Continue reading

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