Less is More

Half a lifetime ago, I found myself the newly appointed 27-year-old Executive Director of a small nonprofit. I had lots of energy and woefully little experience. I was particularly ignorant about fundraising, though my board chair expressed confidence that I could pick it up as I went along. She also made it clear that, given the organization’s financial straits, I had better do that picking-up rather quickly.

I knew enough to know that, well, I didn’t know very much. So I called up a friend of a friend who for twenty years had run the successful development office at an elite prep school. Richard, a man then in his fifties, proved to be very welcoming, and he took some pity on the skinny, bushy-haired, earnest kid before him. We spent an hour or so talking about how to engage donors, in person and on paper.

I asked him if he would mind reviewing my first-ever solicitation letter.

Richard read my letter. He smiled and said, “Really, it’s very good. Now just take out half the adjectives.” Continue reading

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Point, Counterpoint

Dear Readers:

You may be familiar with epistolary novels – that is, novels told entirely in letters between the characters.

Today is an epistolary blog post. My first! (Perhaps yours as well?)

Here’s the background:

Back in May, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an opinion piece by me criticizing the growth of donor-advised funds, particularly those run by Wall Street. Unless you have a subscription to the Chronicle, you’ll have a hard time accessing that original piece on line, but if you’re curious, in many ways it’s a recast and updated version of Deluge, a blog post of mine dating from January.

In July, Douglas Kridler, the CEO of the Columbus Foundation, published a letter to the editor in the Chronicle criticizing my piece. And in the August 11 edition, the Chronicle published my response to Mr. Kridler.

Feel free to click on the links to the Chronicle site, or you can read the two letters, in sequence, below.

I’m honored to be in the middle of this national conversation. Clearly, I think it’s an important issue – and apparently others do, on both sides. Continue reading

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Scale, For Better or For Worse

Nonprofit trends – and their associated jargon – seem to come in waves. Given the disparate and atomized nature of the sector, it’s striking that new notions and terms fall into place so rapidly. I think of that viral video of starlings flying in unison. Somehow, magically, we all start moving in the same direction – perhaps because we don’t want to be left behind. Or eaten by hawks.

One of the hottest bits of jargon the last few years is “scaling up,” or “going to scale.” As with a lot of nonprofit speak, the obsession with scale seems to have originated in the foundation world. (This is consistent with the nonprofit sector’s golden rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”) A few years ago, some influential foundation leaders seem to have decided, in whatever way they decide these things, that in order to have their dollars go further, they should focus their grantmaking on programs that can be scaled up. Other funders began to spout the same idea. Continue reading

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