Saturday, July 18, 2009

Professional fundraising and the death of charity

On August 8th and 9th, I am signed up to ride for a cure for MS. In order to be part of the ride, I was required to fund raise. The charity provided a lot of cute suggestions about how easy it is to raise money and how fast it is. Neither is the truth. The truth about "fun"draising, is it is NOT fun.

Many charities now have foundations with their own staff to raise money and put on events such as these. The days of volunteers who would camp out on a hospital lawn selling cookies or the church bazaars to raise money for a church roof are long gone, we are now in the era of professional fundraising. The professionals know the truth about fundraising!

The first truth about fundraising is to get other people to work for you for free. Not only for free but make them pay to work for you. This is the Tom Sawyer approach.

Tom Sawyer cleverly convinced his friends to pay him to whitewash the fence. At the end of the day, Tom's fence was whitewashed and he had collected prizes from his friends, whom he had convinced were honoured to be doing this work. At the end of August 9th, the MS society will have more money in its coffers and those in the ride will have paid to be part of it.

The difficulties of fundraising are numerous. I have found it particularly challenging when I solicit my friends. This process quickly vets friends. There are friends who will avoid you when you email them, or pretend their email is not working. There are other friends who will promise to sponsor you, but never do. Then there are the friends who think it is a great idea, but will not sponsor you, citing too many charities as the reason.

I have encountered a lot of donor fatigue in my fundraising journey. The professional Tom Sawyers, or fundraisers have almost used up their bag of tricks and people believe that the foundations now exist solely to support themselves and not the original charities. The fundraising attempts are so slick and orchestrated that it is easy to lose sight of what we are doing.

I recently volunteered to assist with the walk to end breast cancer. The professional fundraisers were present, with their speeches and rallying calls...and some of it appeared to be almost like an orchestrated show. I had to remind myself why I was there. Breast cancer has sadly become an industry with pink merchandise, cute slogans and numerous events.

It is the professionalization of fundraising that is one of the main factors in donor fatigue. Fundraising is no longer a few children selling cookies, or middle aged ladies selling jams for church bazaars, fundraising has become big business. It is brash, bold and orchestrated. In the middle ages charity was considered a virtue, it was something that one did voluntarily to assist the less fortunate. Charity is a virtue, it enables us to feel good about helping others. Charity is intensely personal, it is one person's response to a need.

I think that the professional fundraisers with their walks and runs and entertainment and making a business out of raising money are no longer true to the roots of charity. They have depersonalized it and made it part of a show that we buy tickets to watch. It is no longer small or grass roots, it is no longer within the control of the individual. There are even set ticket prices! To walk for breast cancer one had to raise $2400.00. Why? Humbler efforts presumably would not be able to pay the salaries of the professionals who put the event together.

We have packaged the notion of charity and are selling it as a commodity.We no longer assist someone with Alzheimer's, we take part in a run for Alzheimer's, or a walk for memories. We bike for MS, we walk for breast cancer and so on and so forth. We pay to become part of a show.

At a time when people feel alienated and society is increasingly fragmented, we do not need more pastimes or avenues to entertain us. We need to feel connected. We need to recapture the personal in charity. We need to see the face of those to whom we give our alms. We do not need a show.

Professional fundraisers and foundations, while able to attract a considerable amount of funds, will, I believe in the end, poison the very wells from which they drink.

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