Striking ideas: fake nuns, donkeys and your strategy for the year ahead

A new non-profit organisation starts in America about every 10 minutes, 40,000 just last year. Or maybe it was 50,000. Even the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) isn’t exactly sure. Worthy, interesting or bizarre, they will be competing with you this year. Fortunately, they provide three valuable lessons if your organisation was started more than 10 minutes ago.

Written by
Richard C McPherson
March 19, 2010

Which one of these is a phoney nonprofit organisation?

  1. ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’, cross-dressing ‘nuns’ who raise money for AIDS treatment with a live S&M show?
  2. ‘Save Your Ass Long-Ear Rescue’, a Vermont refuge for donkeys and mules living on borrowed time?
  3. ‘The Red Nose Institute’, raising money for postage to send clown noses to cheer up US troops abroad?

If you’ve had a look to the right I’m sure you guessed, it’s a trick question – they are all new 501(c)3 charities, approved by the IRS to raise tax-deductible contributions (known in the US as 501(c)3 charities). They join 1.1 million other US charities, up 60 per cent in just a decade in case you were wondering. (Check out a study of charity growth by Stanford students entitled ‘Anything Goes: Approval of Nonprofit Status by the I.R.S’.)

It must pain Congress and the IRS to give up $50 billion in lost tax revenue from the $300 billion given annually to charity, but no one in Washington is about to tell people not to work for whatever causes they choose. Americans can knock themselves out raising money for legitimate projects no matter how duplicative, obscure, or seemingly misguided. The most foolish will never be heard from again, buried in the dustbin of good intentions. Others, like post-2000 creations KIVA and DonorsChoose, will rocket to fame and become charitable behemoths.

Of course each new group is composed of men and women willing to call or write to their friends, send e-mail, give parties, visit businesses, apply for grants and in short put themselves on the line for their passions. This charitable growth offers three lessons for you for 2010:

  • Success lies in approaching your fundraising (and ticket sales, event invitations, merchandise, etc.) as a relentless battle for market share. Because it is. If you’ve been applying the brakes to your fundraising, it’s time to accelerate. There is a demand for ways to make a difference. And don’t worry about competition from political candidates – yes, there’s another election coming in 2010 – keep your foot on the accelerator.
  • Review and refresh all your basic fundraising tools. This is no time to get sloppy with dull or delayed mailings, antique e-mail templates, donor renewals on cruise-control, web pages frozen in time, or phone scripts that would annoy even your sainted mother.
  • Resolve to adopt one entirely new donor strategy in 2010 and pursue it with all your heart. A new constituency or geography; a neglected programme area; online volunteer committees; Twitter; Something. But do it well, fully, patiently and with the same trial-and-error, school-of-hard-knocks approach you apply to every other fundraising activity. The Red Nose people, nun imitators and donkey rescuers aren’t afraid to be bold, and people like that.

Best of times, worst of times, for sure.

Yes, they are real. Really. And adding a new dimension to what it means to ‘be charitable’.

As usual, Charles Dickens had it right - the best and worst seem to exist side by side, commanding our attention equally.

  • Millions of people are donating, yet 1 in 8 Americans now receives food stamps.
  • Technology has given people free and creative ways to speak out, but civic debate is too often hateful or simplistic.
  • Government and businesses take charities more seriously than ever, but the nonprofit sector seems crowded and overwhelmed.

To compete successfully, maybe even beyond your wildest dreams, try to imagine your programme through the eyes of a start-up. Certainly recognise the competition and climate– but be bold and creative in 2010. And keep your foot on the accelerator.

© Richard C. McPherson 2010

Richard McPherson’s book Digital Giving is published by iUniverse Inc of New York, Lincoln and Shanghai. Its ISBN is 978-0-575-44255-3. It can be ordered online here.

McPherson Associates’ website is here.

Charles Dickens: as usual, he was right (though, he might have combed his hair, for the photo).
‘The most foolish will never be heard from again, buried in the dustbin of good intentions.’

About the author: Richard C McPherson

Richard C McPherson

Richard McPherson pioneered fundraising campaigns in both the civil rights and conservation movements, and served with Earthwatch before founding Philadelphia-based McPherson Associates Inc. The agency represents leading PBS and NPR stations, higher education institutions, conservation organisations, women’s health and advocacy groups, and international organisations. 

Long known for innovation with traditional media, Richard has emerged as a leader among internet strategists and is the author of the acclaimed book Digital Giving: How Technology is Changing Charity (2007, iUniverse, a Barnes & Noble Company).

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