Noth­ing can or should sub­sti­tute for philanthropy

In this arti­cle, writ­ten in April 2009, Simone Joy­aux talks about the dif­fer­ences between rev­enue and char­i­ta­ble gifts – and why cus­tomers and donors are not one in the same. Yet despite it being almost 15 years on from when Simone penned this piece, a lot hasn’t changed for fundrais­ers. Char­i­ties are still fac­ing tough times and may need to diver­si­fy their income streams. Read on to dis­cov­er more of Simone’s insights and learn why she believed that noth­ing sub­sti­tutes for donors. Noth­ing. Ever. Never.

Written by
Simone Joyaux
December 13, 2023

Why donors are so important

I’m worried by what I see as an excessive focus on generating revenue by nonprofits.

There’s a new old chant in town: ‘Let’s start a business where customers buy stuff and then we won't have to rely so heavily on donations!’ Articles proclaim that nonprofits are ‘finally wising up’.

It’s kinda like revenue is better than charitable contributions. Somehow, the reliance on donations is seen as somewhat demeaning. Even the term ‘nonprofit’ suggests – in our capitalistic, profit-driven society – that to be nonprofit is less-than.

(As an aside: notice the trend of foundations to hire for-profit business leaders as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). The message is that there is nothing unique about the nonprofit sector; there is no special knowledge or skills needed. Nonprofits – including foundations – are so incompetent that they have to hire for-profit business leaders to get fixed better.)

In summary, the equation seems to be, revenue is better than charitable gifts. Customers produce revenue so customers are better, better than donors.

Generating both revenue and charitable gifts

Let’s step back a moment. Since time began, many nonprofits have generated both revenue and charitable gifts. So the new news is pretty old. Just more egregious with moneymaking entrepreneurs sneering about how to start business ventures.

Theatres and symphonies produce revenue by selling tickets and refreshments. Museums generate revenue with admissions and gift shop sales. Colleges and universities charge tuition. Hospitals charge fees paid by insurance companies and government contracts.

In addition to revenue streams, these organisations run fundraising programmes that garner charitable gifts. When I worked at Trinity Repertory Company, one of the top regional theatres in the United States of America (USA) we generated 70 per cent of our income from revenue and 30 per cent from charitable gifts. Nonprofit hospitals, on the other hand, may get only 10 per cent of their income from gifts.

Revenue is great, as are the customers that produce the revenue. Nonprofits that can generate admissions, sales and the like may well enjoy a more balanced financing stream.

Uniqueness of nonprofits/ Nov Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

But nothing substitutes for donors and their charitable gifts. I repeat: Nothing substitutes for donors.

And not because of the money. Donors are different than customers.

The uniqueness of any and all nonprofits is philanthropy, voluntary action for the common good. (Thanks, Bob Payton, for that glorious definition. Bob was the first professor of philanthropics in the USA and author of the wonderful book Why Philanthropy?)

Voluntary action for the common good... the uniqueness and, yes, the strength of nonprofits.

Individuals, families, businesses, service groups, and faith groups giving their time and/or their money to build strong communities. Moms and dads and little kids and teens volunteering in the soup kitchen and cleaning up rivers.

People with a little and lots of money giving gifts to help others. The woman who sent a few dollars to help a charity. The school kids who sent all the pennies they collected. The banker, the janitor, the nonprofit executive director, the pastor – all sending donations to causes they care about. And sure, Bill and Melinda Gates, too.

Voluntary action for the common good. Nothing substitutes for these donors. I say ‘these donors’ not ‘their gifts’. Again, it’s not the money, it’s the donors. It’s the meaning of donors investing, committing, engaging in a cause.

Donors worry about the lives of others and the state of the world. Donors want to make a difference. And nonprofit charitable organisations are the means by which donors make that difference. Nonprofits/NGOs are the conduit for donors to live out their feelings and fulfil their aspirations. Nothing can substitute for these loyal donors.

Nothing can substitute for voluntary action for the common good, not even buying things.

Customers and donors

Sure revenue is good but it doesn’t substitute for charitable gifts. Sure, customer loyalty is great. I’m an ardent Apple fan. I’m a very loyal customer. But in a tough economy, I may not buy the newest iPod or the even newer laptop, which is so cool and better than the one I have.

I was a loyal customer of Michigan State University (MSU), my alma mater. But I’m not a customer any longer. I am, however, a donor. I’m a loyal donor. I’ve made a bequest in my will to MSU, too.

Loyal customers are wonderful... those Apple buyers and Trinity Repertory Company subscribers. But the Trinity Rep subscribers who are also donors – now that’s really something.

Customers and donors are not interchangeable, not even the really loyal ones. Yes, customers and donors have much in common. Just read Adrian Sargeant’s book Building Donor Loyalty. But customers and donors are not exactly the same.

Loyal customers can be affected by the economy. Customers can move on once their need is met, or in search of product enhancements.

Ticket buyers may not buy tickets to the most challenging and controversial plays, even though that’s the mission of the theatre. Donors allow the theatre to fulfil its mission rather than produce popular plays only. (Popular plays, subject to customer whim, is Broadway.)

Donors give beyond a particular play because they’re committed to mission. Donors give in tough economic times. Donors increase their gifts without the expectation of goods and services.

Donors can be forever, even after death.

Fundraising events aren’t as good as charitable gifts either

Nothing substitutes for donors. And there’s a parallel in fundraising itself: Nothing substitutes for charitable gifts, not even ticket purchases for fundraising events. Fundraising events cannot substitute for requesting a donation.

The reality is, buying a ticket to an event is usually about attending the event. If people are not interested in attending the event, they may not buy the ticket. And most fundraising events have no real connection to the cause anyway; the event is just about making money. (Oh don’t even get me started on golf events!)

Also, in my experience, the economy affects fundraising events more than the economy affects charitable giving. Corporations back off from event sponsorship, but still may give a gift. Individuals don’t buy tickets to events when times are tough, but these same individuals will still give a donation.

The ticket is equated with the event. A donation – with no goods or services exchanged – is about the cause.

So beware of too much focus on fundraising events. Spend more time on charitable gifts and donors. Beware of too much time focused on revenue generation – or over-reliance on revenue, which is subject to the whim of customers.

Nothing substitutes for donors. Nothing. Ever. Never.

IMAGES: © All images from Canva

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in 2009 on Simone’s website, here.

About the author: Simone Joyaux

Simone Joyaux

The late, great Simone P Joyaux, ACFRE was described as ‘one of the most thoughtful, inspirational, and provocative leaders in the philanthropic sector’. A consultant who specialised in fund development, strategic planning and board development, Simone guided countless organisations and professionals during her many years of consulting and coaching, teaching and writing. She taught in the graduate programme for philanthropy at Saint Mary’s University, in Minneapolis, USA. Her books included Keep Your Donors, Strategic Fund Development and Firing Lousy Board Members. As a volunteer, Simone founded the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, a social justice organisation. Simone and her life partner bequeathed their entire estate to charity. You can find more of Simone’s writing in SOFII’s Simone Joyaux archive, here

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