Think big. Invest big. Be big.

It’s no secret that I’m on the road a lot. Most recently I’ve been up in the Northeast, down South and I even got to spend some time bouncing around the Midwest. When I get some extra time on the plane or in the hotel room to just sit back and relax away from the organized chaos of life at home with three crazy kids, my mind wanders and I think about all sorts of things related to my life and our work in the world of nonprofit fundraising.

One thing I keep pondering: how to make philanthropy the biggest and best it can be.

We MUST invest in ourselves

One of the most memorable presentations I’ve ever seen was a TED Talk by Dan Pallotta, a nonprofit leader and activist who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS and breast cancer charities.

Pallotta makes a really powerful argument: most people look at nonprofits the wrong way. They believe charities should run on bare-bones budgets with low paid staff. The results: Most top-level talent resides in the for-profit sector. Nonprofit revenues have never made up more than 2% of GDP for decades on end. There is no “economic growth,” only shifting of donor dollars within a pie that never grows.

Fair or unfair, Charity Navigator and national media outlets continue to solely focus (and rate us) on the fact that not all dollars can go to the cause because, like for-profits have known for years, it takes money to make money.

Funding operating costs isn’t a bad thing and honestly, if we want our favorite charities to grow and flourish, they need to have the best leadership and this ultimately costs money.

Instead of a regional or national nonprofit, for example, capping staff and resource investment at several hundred thousand dollars to generate several million dollars, what about ramping up talent and asset investment to several million dollars to generate tens of millions in new funding? The cost is much higher, yes, but the ROI could be much, much greater. And the ultimate mission of the nonprofit—making lives better—ratchets up to an enormously higher level.

Taking risks and going big

We all might benefit by taking a new look at how we invest to achieve results. Are we being modest in our marketing strategy because that’s the way we’ve always done it? Because our board would be shocked if we proposed elevating our game—and investment—dramatically? Can we use analytic tools that could show a much bigger return on a much higher investment?

I don’t want to preach “go big or go home.” That’s cliché. And no one wants to go home—we want to stay in the game. But can we do better? If that means a much bigger investment—in people, in materials, in value-added processes, in research—who’s to say we can’t wildly succeed?

If you’d like to read more, our good friends at Bloomerang have also explored this topic!

5 thoughts on “Think big. Invest big. Be big.

  1. Claire

    Great read, thanks for sharing. Your point on turnover is huge as we see a roughly 24 month tenure within the fundraising industry. If it takes 14 months to get up to speed and, on average, 10 months later they’re gone…it’s next to impossible to be effective and it’s definitely not fair to the donors…especially when so much of fundraising is built around relationships.

    There MUST be a bigger investment in talent to ensure stability and growth for the future.
    Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Indeed. Penelope Burk’s research on tenure is eye opening, and should be heeded by nonprofits wishing to maximize use of limited resources. It’s pennywise and pound-foolish to skimp on talent.

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