Community-Centric Fundraising – The Motherload of Bad Ideas is Professor Kathleen Robinson’s take on a new, cryptic and confusing movement within the charitable sector. Robinson, has testified before Congress, the United Nations and has inspired governments around the world to develop human welfare policies rooted in philanthropy. She is the co-founder of National Association of Nonprofit Organizations & Executives (NANOE). Here’s what Kathleen has to say about Community-Centric Fundraising:
Recently, I was asked to share my impressions about a new movement called Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF). Many nonprofit administrators, philanthropists, volunteers and board members find CCF’s principles disturbing, confusing, misleading and potentially damaging to the charitable sector.
My first impression after reading Community-Centric Fundraising’s website was that it was best not to respond at all. Why? Because so many of their concepts were undefined, imprecise and lacked an understanding of the nuts and bolts of fundraising. Their narratives created a false enemy, and given their philosophical orientation, chose the wrong place to begin their transformation of the U.S. economy in which philanthropy operates. I also found that Community-Centric Fundraising only makes sense if one puts on a socialist or Marxist philosophical hat and adopted certain change tactics.
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I have worked in many different national and political contexts during my career, including those that swung from democracies to socialist, communist, or at least highly authoritarian regimes. I have witnessed firsthand what happens to civil society, including whatever fragile nonprofit sector may exist, as these economies are seized and altered. Yes, I have seen my nonprofit sector colleagues killed and have run for my life in some of these nations.
Community-Centric Fundraising is a Motherload of Bad Ideas
Many of these authoritarian leaders called for many of the philosophical guidelines mentioned on the CCF website. So, I do see red flags. I have witnessed the notion of ‘volunteering’ become something not freely given. Rather, it becomes something authoritarian leaders require. I have seen the aftermath in the soviet satellite nations who have spent years restoring residents’ notion of freely giving to a cause (time, effort, and resources), particularly where government took over all giving functions (and all wealth engines) and residents thinking and actions were altered so they had no understanding of a civic duty to contribute to the well-being of their community. All this happened using a philosophical and political framework of re-distribution of wealth.
I have watched what really happens when someone says wealth needs to be re-distributed. How wealth is redistributed and what happens to people all depends on the benevolence of authoritarian leaders, or those under their power and control, and their attitudes and prejudices. So CCF’s website, at the very least raises my red flags. I hope all readers will go deep into the ramifications of what is said and not get too distracted by what at first glance seems so sexy, innovative, current, and sensical.
Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. economy, how it operates, and what the consequences are for various individuals and groups are far from perfect. There are all different kinds of inequities and discrimination against people of all different races, ethnicities, gender identities, faiths, etc. that community leaders seek to deal with and understand. Such discussions need to occur. In many communities, they are occurring so that structural adjustments are made, and affordable and accessible resources and opportunities are provided to those denied such because of inequitable treatment by individuals, groups, institutions and organizations in society. There are highly developed, sophisticated sets of approaches and tools available to leaders who skillfully conduct such conversations in community so that positive changes can be made. All change produces negative as well as positive impacts. For CCF, if they are successful in producing the changes they seek, what are the negative impacts possible? NANOE members have begun to identify what these consequences may be. Beware. Be thoughtful.
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Community-Centric Fundraising’s ideas are so convoluted it’s hard to know how to respond. Why give them more ‘air time’? Why get sucked into the push back? So once again I decided no response was better. I’m trying to stay focused on positive helps to build a strong nonprofit sector, not ones that try to dismantle it. However, in the end, I realized it’s important to take a stand and take a stand on this issue.
So here it goes—but in just a few pages. I only highlight some of the major concerns I have and that were mentioned by others.
Community-Centric Fundraising Isn’t Really About Fundraising
Briefly, the concerns highlighted by NANOE members were . . .
- What is meant by community is not defined. There are communities of interest, geography, belief, those based on race and ethnicity, gender identity, etc. What community do they want involved in their approach to raise funds? Who is excluded? Why? Ironically their group is called Community-centric fundraising so one would expect a better definition of community and at least a minimum of discussion of what exact is the approach they advocate. But its not there.
- What is meant by fundraising is not defined. It appears that most of the writing is focused on campaigns in which individuals are asked for money using a specific fundraising process (i.e., the donor-centered approach). Yet, in one sentence, the writer also identifies grant writing, which is most often done by other people than fundraisers. Fundraisers may be a part of the team involved in writing the grant and promoting awarded projects’ outcomes.
- Some wonder if there is a good understanding of what is involved in financial capacity building within a nonprofit. Many strategies are used, fundraising campaigns is but one strategy for generating a nonprofit’s wealth. (See NANOE’s Guidelines entitled Building Financial Capacity and Boosting Financial Capacity.) And it certainly involve many more actors than a fundraiser/development officer.
- Some questioned whether at least some of the CCF leaders really understand the nuts and bolts of a donor-centered fundraising approach. They questioned whether a CCF leaders can adequately tell what goes on in each phase of a campaign. The conclusion is that if they did they wouldn’t have pitted community against donor.
- Community-Centric Fundraising asks for major alterations in the U.S. economy and the way all organizations, institutions and groups relate to each other and operate. In short, they fundamentally seek to re-distribute wealth and greatly alter the U.S. economic system. Such alterations have significant consequences for civil society, the nonprofit sector, and how philanthropy works. Let’s hope CCF leaders count the costs before blindly setting out to dismantle it. It is questionable why they choose to focus on fundraisers to achieve their goals.
- Community-Centric Fundraising seems to confuse what goes on during community organizing, movement building, and discussion about major societal issues and their effect on certain community groups with the focus and conduct of running a successful fundraising campaign within the current economic, political, and social realities.
- Community-Centric Fundraising may confuse and set back inexperienced fundraisers (development officers hired by nonprofits) from gaining clarity on how best to conduct a fundraiser that generates significant revenues for a nonprofit. Some wonder if those very fundraisers that CCF leaders seek to empower will actually be put at greater disadvantage or at least side-tracked from learning successful ways to raise significant revenues from donors.
- Community-Centric Fundraising seems to pit the community against the donor. But donors are a part of the community. The argument is a bit tautological. Practically, fundraisers have to identify who is interested and able to give and ask them to give. While general appeals to the public are given at different phases of a donor-centered approach, pragmatically fundraisers focus on finding donors who have a passion for the cause, have resources to give, see the nonprofit as a viable organization to address the cause, and are willing to give time, effort, and resources to the nonprofit so that the community is positively impacted and resources and opportunities are available and affordable to those denied, discriminated against or treated in some way inequitably.
- There is an assumption that grassroots nonprofits run by minorities don’t have opportunities to seek donors and other types of funders. That there is inequitable treatment. That is not entirely true. True, many nonprofit minority groups, at least at the beginning, struggle to get organized as a business as well as deliver services. Without doing so, their ability to attract donors, as well as other revenue generation opportunities is lessened. The beginning phase of nonprofit development is demanding. If founders lack knowledge and skill in business and/or service development, it becomes difficult to gain traction and grow. But the associations of nonprofit organizations available in all states provide the kinds of tutoring, consultation, and workshops that new nonprofit leaders need to establish their business and services. Other nonprofits also provide tutoring and help to groups starting a nonprofit. It would be helpful in some communities to determine what hinders minority groups from accessing the resources available so that the larger nonprofit sector can lend better support.
- A donor’s choice to withhold giving to a minority-run nonprofit is their right because the U.S. constitution protects private property and people’s right to own it, distribute it, and use it as they see fit, including the wealth they generate. If a donor does not have the confidence that a nonprofit is apt to use their money wisely, efficiently, act with transparency, use financial management processes that avoid graft, corruption, or misuse fund, they are apt not to give or, at best, give a token amount until the nonprofit proves itself. Yes, the donor discriminates. We all do, when it comes to who we give to, how much, and why.
- Nonprofits are told to consider merging. That’s not a new message. It’s a message that has been around for over twenty years. Some have. Some have partnered with other nonprofits to achieve better results and pool resources. So, nothing new. Nonprofits have encouraged other nonprofits to merge, as have foundations, donors, investors, and government agencies representatives.
- Nonprofits are asked not to solicit some donors (not identified) for money so that minority-run nonprofits in the community can approach them. But really? The race or ethnicity of the leaders is not the issue as much as it how good a case for support is, how well run the organization is, and what evidence is presented that what they do is having a positive effect. Any nonprofit should have the right to seek out donors related to their cause and present a case solid enough to win their support. Indeed, some do a much better job building the relationship with donors than do others. Some don’t build a relationship at all so donors come and go and give much less than they would if truly engaged. Some clearly show outcomes, present a clear understanding of the issues, and a solid plan for change. Others don’t.
- There is an assumption that competition is bad and always has bad effects. Implicit in their narrative is an unstated implication that minority or disadvantaged individuals can’t compete. Really? True, those that compete need to do so without slander, libel, name calling, degrading the work of others or use other unjust means and some don’t, but fair, just competition done with integrity and competency usually still wins in the long run.
- There is an assumption that nonprofits don’t share resources with one another. Having done hundreds of assessments of the nonprofit world in various communities across the U.S., I can say that some community nonprofits do a much better job sharing resources than others. However, in general, nonprofit leaders do share, do meet to discuss community issues and how each can contribute to make a difference. Partnerships and sharing have been encouraged for a very long time. Nothing new here, but the narrative gives the impression that more resource-endowed nonprofits don’t share with nonprofits with smaller budgets. That really is not an accurate case in most communities in the U.S.
- There is an assumption that donors control what a nonprofit does and exert too much power, control and authority over the nonprofit’s leaders. However, this assumption is not accurate. Donors are but one of many different sources of power, control and authority that nonprofit leaders deal with all the time. And many fundraisers will tell you that few donors exert much pressure at all. They do expect their money to be used as promised. They appreciate reports of outcomes and impacts. And when a relationship isn’t built, they give for just a year or two and then fade away silently because no substantive contact was established with them.
- Community-Centric Fundraising pits a donor-centered approach against a community-centered approach to fundraising. It’s a false argument on many levels. However, anyone who uses current fundraising campaign processes will tell you that the process is both community-centered and donor-centered. It pays attention to the circumstances of people related to cause. Customers (present and possible future) are often involved in discussions of what their current issues are and what needs changing. The Case for Support developed by fundraisers relies on such assessments and conversations.
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Fundraisers hold some events during the fundraising process for the general public. They also hold events for specific donors. Donor events and the amount and kind of contact varies according to the level of gift that might be possible from each. A fundraiser must be donor centered. They must employ some strategy to determine how they will use their time and resources to get to those that will donate. Their job is to locate and engage people with resources who want to give to their cause.
- Fundraisers rely on other people to conduct community conversations about the inequities, lack of access to resources and opportunities, and structural inequities that exist. If this hasn’t been done by nonprofit leaders prior to the start of a fundraising campaign, the planning phase of the fundraising campaign is affected. It’s longer. Either leaders take the time and resources to do an adequate assessment of the people’s situation related to their cause or they use their own sense of things, conversations with customers and other stakeholders, and secondary data to frame a statement of the problematic situation. Obviously, the better the assessment process is done before the fundraising campaign starts, the stronger, more credible is the Case for Support, and the more on target the proposed projects will be in effectively addressing people’s situation. The point being made is fundraisers rarely are in the lead on conducting productive community conversations of the kind CCF seems to want. It is evaluators and skilled group facilitators able to create a conversation context in which different worldviews and sense of a situation can be voiced without suppression and where opposing views, values and prized resolutions are explored. Any given problematic situation has multiple worldviews and multiple prized ways to bring about change. A Case for Support must capture the consensus achieved during such conversations. Fundraisers rely on others to provide the information resulting from such discussion so that they can develop a solid case for support. Executive leaders rely on such assessments to develop strategies for change.
True, there are times when fundraising consultants or fundraising staff are hired and they realize that the nonprofit has no strategic plan and no true assessment of outcomes and impacts and no in depth statement about the problematic situation of people related to cause. So, they do have to spend time helping to get at least a beginning level assessment done and a change strategy built so that a case for support can be developed, and helpful projects determined which form the basis for the ‘ask’. Some nonprofit leaders do need to bolster their assessment capacities, begin an internal evaluation unit, and participate in or sponsor conducting the community conversations necessary to determine the perceived causes of discrimination, injustice, inequity and issues faced by various individuals, families, and groups in a community and related to their cause.
- Certain community groups and individuals are being pitted against each other in CCF’s argument. A major community organizing technique (from certain philosophical perspectives) is to create an enemy in order to gain the attention of some who don’t have a solid values and belief system to use as a filter to what’s being said. Catchy slogans, phrases are used. People (in this case donors?) are vilified and labeled. The objective is to seek to control of what people believe, and what people do for the presenters’ ends. Violent means can be used, in some philosophical approaches, to justify what they believe to be justified ends. For this reason, NANOE has advocated in its guidelines using noble means for noble ends and prizes creating change using approaches more in line with those used by Martin Luther King than was evident with Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Mao, etc. We think such means also square away better with our notion of equity and equality. (See NANOE’s Guideline entitled Strong CEOs and Network and Engage for in depth discussion.)
- Community-Centric Fundraising’s narrative is all about changing power, control, and authority relationships that exist in the philanthropic sector. Although they really never say that directly. It’s odd to many readers, why CCF chose fundraising as the focal point of their critique and place to begin a movement to significantly alter the U.S. economy related to philanthropy.
- Community-Centric Fundraising appears to be based on a Marist philosophy regarding re-distribution of wealth and dismantling of the U.S. economic system in which the nonprofit world resides without adequate understanding of the ramifications that may occur for the philanthropic world in the US and its concomitant effects of civil society and the nonprofit sector. Readers are encouraged to consider what has happened in other parts of the world where wealth was re-distributed, what tactics were used, who benefited and who didn’t, and what happened to civil society as we now experience it.
- On one hand, Community-Centric Fundraising says fundraisers should not pay attention to donors during the fundraising process which seems to defy logic and reason, and on the other hand tells readers that they value building donor relationships. Yet, the assumption made about donor’s motives for giving (pity and throwing a little money at nonprofits and their cause to ease their conscious, among others which they wrong define as charity) is really questionable and doesn’t ring true for those who have done hundreds of fundraising campaigns and interacted meaningfully with thousands of donors.
- Community-Centric Fundraising assumes it’s the job of the fundraiser to challenge donor’s values, beliefs, behaviors during the fundraising process. Yet, most experienced fundraisers will tell you that it’s more a donor self-sorting process that goes on. During fundraising processes, most fundraisers don’t see their role as challenging donors’ values, beliefs and prized solutions. Instead, they listen to various worldviews and show how their nonprofit’s case for support relates to donors’ worldviews and passions. If there is not a good fit, many fundraisers tell the donor it’s not a good fit. Some fundraisers even suggest a nonprofit that may better suit their worldview and reasons for giving.
Donor-Centric Fundraising Is Moral, Tried & True
Building relationships with donors is all about finding donors that have similar passions as the nonprofit leaders, and who want to be a part of realizing the dream of making things better or eradicating unjust, inequitable situations as presented in the case for support. They and the donors must be somewhat in agreement that the strategies employed and advocated in the Case for Support make sense in making a positive difference. Yes, some donors who give large amounts of money will look to see that the nonprofit leaders know what evidence-based practices are and that they are employed by the nonprofit and if not, there is a very good reason why.
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And yes, nonprofit leaders (not just a fundraiser) do turn down gifts if they are not a good fit (or bear the consequences of what results). Fundraisers will rarely turn down a gift by themselves without involving executive staff in such a decision.
- Community-Centric Fundraising seems to advocate for a major shift in the job responsibilities of fundraisers. CCF seems to ask fundraisers to assume job functions that currently are done by urban and regional planning departments, Chambers of Commerce, United Ways, and other intra-sector groups in community that seek to create a plan of action to correct discrimination, stop injustice, provide needed opportunities and resources to disadvantaged individuals, families and groups. A very skilled facilitator is required to conduct productive community conversations on matters related to structural change, equity, social justice, discrimination, lack of access to affordable resources or opportunities in a manner that all worldviews are heard and accounted for in recommendations for structural, economic, governance, social or cultural changes. Such facilitation is beyond the competency of many, if not most, fundraisers.
- Community-Centric Fundraising makes a series of false assumptions about such things as donor motives, how a donor-centered approach to fundraising actually is done, about how nonprofits actually relate to and partner with each other and with businesses, to name just a few.
- Some Community-Centric Fundraising leaders have indicated in oral presentations (heard by some NANOE members) that, in their view, violence against donors will be needed in order to shake up philanthropy enough to cause the redistribution of wealth they seek. This is serious stuff, if actually said and meant. We have recently witnessed the consequences of those willing to engage in such action. We have witnessed people’s behavior that are swept up in such calls for action. We have witnessed changes in once peaceful people who now advocate violence to get their way. We have seen various religious communities captured for political purposes and its results. We have witnessed growing divisions, a lack of civil discourse, and an unwillingness to reach consensus. And such talk of using violent means to achieve their stated ends, while it may be for dramatic effect, is dangerous and misdirected. It suggests tearing down the very system by which the oppressed gain access to needed resources and opportunities. But they are silent in what replaces it. Violence perpetrated against donors will stifle the willingness of those who have resources and want to contribute. It may cause government leaders who are already concerned about the nonprofit sector to consider doing away with the nonprofit sector, as we now know it, and requiring all nonprofit to re-incorporating as S or C corporations and taxing them accordingly. There will be counter controls exerted if violent means are used to accomplish stated purposes.
- Ironically, Community-Centric Fundraising leaders are volunteers relying on the current way the economy works to accomplish their goals. It appears no one is being paid directly by CCF but are employed by other nonprofits or are private consultants who serve nonprofits for fees for services. Some are receiving considerable resources for their speaking engagements in which they advocated their principles and philosophy. So, currently they are economically sustained by the very economic system they decry and seek to dismantle. Ironically, they receive wealth from the very system they are trying to alter.
- Community-Centric Fundraising IS NOT a 501c3 but is collecting donations. It’s an unincorporated grassroots group under the financial sponsorship of the Seattle Parks Foundation (SPF). One of the CCF leaders is SPF’s development officer. CCF asks for donations on the front page of their website. It raises the concern that there is a potential for a conflict of interest, if the development officer of Seattle Parks Foundation is the sole person in SPF that is signing off on CCF expenditures. (No wrongdoing implied it’s an accountability concern.) Also, the CCF website does not indicate to donors that their donations are not tax deductible. I did not take the time to find out if CCF has begun to incorporate as a 501c3 or what incorporation status they are seeking if any, or if they have filed with Washington state for 501c3 status, or with the IRS for tax exemption status. If CCF’s profile becomes more nationally known, these issues will be investigated by a variety of individuals and organizations. In addition, SPF has a specific mission and donors so SPF executives and board can also ask whether the resources (e.g., accounting and CPA audits) and time it take to financially manage CCF’s finances are aligned with the mission of SPF.
So, there are questions about how astute CCF leaders are about following current regulations and forming a business enterprise, albeit a nonprofit. This is important since they want to be a movement and some movement leaders get into real trouble because their financial management is poor and subject to corruption, as defined by law. Just take a look at the Black Lives Matter issues that have recently surfaced. Some of their chapters are now being closed down by state authorities. (CCF is advocating and encouraging people to form state chapters.) BLM leaders are under scrutiny for potential mismanagement of funds and diversion of funds, some of which may have been allocated for personal pursuits. Since CCF is adopting a similar kind of growth plan, we hope CCF leaders learn from BLM leaders’ mistakes. We hope CCF leaders will not say they don’t know what an IRS 990 is or why they are asked to complete it! We hope they spend as much time on the business aspects of their organization and movement as they do on other matters.
At least some CCF leaders, are currently engaged as development officers and consultants who must work within the current economic system, regulatory environment, intra-sector interactions, and power, control and authority mechanisms to gain access to people who are willing to contribute to the cause related to the organization in which they are employed. In other words, at some level, they understand they need to do their job effectively for the organization for which they are hired and be donor centered while, at the same time, they seek to dismantle the philanthropic system they currently rely on. At least some of them, at some level, must feel great dissonance in their value, belief, action leadership framework. For they are in a “do as I say not as a do” situation.
They may want to consider NANOE’s Guideline titled Strong CEOs: Character, Competence, Courage, Actions, and Achievements.
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