In defence of charities and events

First, Nell, I don’t know you, but I read your blog because I value the work you do and the time you spend thinking about our shared sector. So in the nature of respectful, and good-natured debate, here’s my blunt reaction to your latest blog (The Fundraising Event Debate Rages On).

Note: I changed the title after someone beside me suggested it that "Nell Edgington (Social Velocity) is wrong about more than just charity events. Here’s why." was too "click-baity". 

Some pots just ask to be stirred.

Some pots just ask to be stirred.

1. You mention “charities” and “nonprofits” as if they are the same thing. They are not.

Charities, by definition, are institutions with a formal public-benefit purpose. Nonprofits are corporate entities that do not generate a profit, and can have any purpose, including the furtherance of very private, very special interests that may have nothing to do with the public good. 

When you say the “charity model” doesn’t work anymore, it’s not clear whether you are referring to the nonprofit corporate structure or institutions founded to serve a public-benefit purpose. This is an increasingly important distinction to make, because ...

2. “Charitable” work (and organizations) are baked into our economic model already.

Without getting overly academic, there are economic reasons why charitable (volunteer-directed, public-interest) organizations have always existed. They are a vital part of a healthy civil society, identifying grassroots needs long before government can and serving markets that need to be served but offer no hope of financial return. There will always be gaps in what government prioritizes, what enterprise wants to provide, and what communities need. There is no functioning democratic economic model that eliminates charities. 

3. Charities don’t get the respect they deserve, I will give you that. 

But it doesn’t help to suggest that “volunteers” can’t be “experts” or that “experts” will do a better job promoting the public interest in their communities.

If anything, there is a wealth of information out there that suggests professional, expert, for-profit boards have done far more damage to the public interest than volunteer-led boards precisely because of the financial and societal incentives that accompany such positions.  

If we can’t cheerlead for our peers in the sector, then who will?

4. Charities aren’t going anywhere, either.

The reality is that how well I do my job has no bearing on how much money my organization has to pay me (unless i work in the fundraising department). It’s a fundamental truth of economics and explains why charitable organizations and for-profit entities can never fully become one. (See my earlier post on Virtuous Circles).

Share all the stories you’d like about Millennials and social change, but charitable institutions are unique, and they will always have a role to play. 

5. The people who started charities in the olden-timey days were pretty smart, too.

You argue that "There are just too many social challenges to think that benevolent, reciprocity-based “charity” will work anymore."

Are you suggesting that feudalism, the global slave trade, leprosy and other nasties of the past were somehow "lesser" social challenges than the ones we face today? That the people who sought to tackle them were less interested in systemic change? That those people just didn’t know any better? Or that they didn't realize they could have been making more money all that time?

With all due respect, democracy, equal voting rights, the abolition of  slavery and a host of other social justice victories are evidence that people worked hard to tend to those in need and fight the good fight at the same time. Those victories were not inevitable. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

6. Which doesn’t mean the sector has always done a good job.

For example, it sounds like the events you have attended are grim affairs. Of course organizers should look at ROI and a full cost/ benefit analysis for their activities. That’s a given. 

I, for one, think that people will always want to come together with like minded individuals in a quasi-social setting. There is something magical about a group of people articulating a vision and asking for the public to support them. 

7.  Which brings me to the charity mindset: Pshaw, I say.

Gandhi wrote that charities should rely on donations from the public because it was the only way to ensure that the organization represented the true public will. That’s why he gave up his successful law practice and “begged” his community to support him - it was the harder path, but the truer one for his cause. In the process, he rallied an entire nation and left a mark that will resonate for generations.

That model is not right for every issue in every place, but surely it is needed some of the time. 

I’m not so sure that the solution is to abandon charitable aims or notions entirely. Perhaps we should be elevating and celebrating the sector, instead of buying into a worldview that lack of economic success is a sign of failure.

So … I’m hoping that, by writing honestly, some other intrepid soul will read your blog and think about these issues. They’re important. Thank you for raising them.