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Bright Shiny Objects, Part II

October 18th, 2012 by Alison · 4 Comments · money, spirituality & religion

Last Sunday I posted on the Habitat For Humanity fundraiser I attended. I felt it was dominated by bright shiny objects, and was straying from its mission of affordable housing, co-built by people of all income levels, with materialism and elitism.

Not surprisingly, some commenters (fellow attendees and friends of mine) had a differing opinion. So I decided to go a little deeper with this sequel post.

One comment reported that $185,000 was announced at the event as the amount raised. But unless they’d done some lightning-fast math, that would have been the gross. The real amount raised at any given fundraiser is the net, i.e. the gross minus the overhead of the event. Auctioneers receive a commission, which may be up to 50% of the bids they raise. They are typically supported by assistant staff and by advertising, which the nonprofit typically pays for. As another commenter pointed out, lots of the auction activity was “straight bids” — i.e. donations with no goods or services received. But auctioneers get their commission on those “straight” donations, too. The attendees caught up in the exciting bidding didn’t necessarily know that.

Auctioneers are talented, hard-working people, and I respect their enterprise and wish them well. If our goal, though, is for nonprofits to prosper and  most of our donations to not get eaten up by overhead, we might do better to skip the glamourous, costly party. We’d maybe do better to attend a down-to-earth house party. My husband Thor and I did this in August, to learn about a Habitat project — Colleen Kaleda’s brainchild The Community Project: Ethiopia - and write a check in support. Another effective way to give is through an employer that does matched giving. Happily, Thor’s employer offers that, and we’ve been giving to Habitat and eight other nonprofits for many years in that leveraged way.

 I’ve attended many fundraisers in the past decade, and done fundraising (also called development work) for three different nonprofits, myself. I’ve also studied Kim Klein’s books (Klein is a veteran development consultant). The fundamentals of fundraising are building and nurturing a community of committed donors. Building trusting relationships (often face-to-face ones) over time and doing personal asks, both by paid staff and by volunteer board members, are the methods proven to build stable, sustainable organizations. Gala events tend to raise an organization’s visibility, but not necessarily its committed base. Those events also may or may not be in congruence with the nonprofit’s mission.

I expect that most people who attended Habitat’s Hard Hat, Black Tie event last Friday night felt fine about the event.  The event reflected mainstream culture, and the mainstream doesn’t do critical thinking around consumption. Diamond-Cut Life does do critical thinking around consumption, and makes value judgments, i.e. I believe some choices are better than others. (Note: that is different from saying some people are better than others, which religious fundamentalism is known to do, and which this writer will never do.)

Speaking of religion, Habitat, like lots of good nonprofits, has Christian roots. Christ and the early Christians were a minority voice – which is always hard to remember, because they’ve been the majority religion and a dominating force in Western culture now for centuries. But Christ was an alarming, dissident prophet in both the secular culture of the Romans, and the religious culture of the Jews.  He said the status quo was deeply flawed. This blog has been saying the same thing, in a wide variety of ways, for five years.

One reader wrote in after reading my prior post: “Nothing is ever as pure as we want it to be.” I agree with him. Maybe we could say that only newborn babies are as pure as we want them to be. We could say that the mission of a nonprofit is like a baby: a pure and good thing, and that a given method of fundraising is the bathwater.

Human beings will always be attracted to bright shiny objects,  and get distracted by them, at the same time they want to give to organizations that are building a better world. Concerning live-auction fundraising, I’m not going to throw the baby - the good missions - out with the bathwater. But I’m clear that I believe the bathwater needs changing.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • craftygreenpoet

    I share your uncomfortable feelings here. I used to be a fundraiser and one particular charity was very inept at fundraising. It worked with homeless people but held an exclusive dinner (with high value donated raffle prizes, though no paid auctioneer) for housing companies (the same housing companies that in general are reluctant to build affordable housing). The same charity sent paid members of staff unneccessarily to events - the whole fundraising team (plus the Director and her PA) were sent to a sporting event which was awareness raising not fundraising and our only tasks were to put posters up and to chat to people. Once the whole fundraising team was sent to a nightclub that was raising funds for the charity, and spent the whole evening sitting by themselves in a side room ready to talk about the charity’s work while the clubbers danced. When I complained about these inappropriate fund-raising attempts, I was threatened with dismissal. So its not just about inappropriately expensive prizes but often about mismanagement of resources in fund-raising.

    • Alison

      Thanks for sharing that, Juliet. It looks like I was only seeing the tip of an iceberg. Sounds like a really unpleasant job you had back then. I’m afraid it’s practically the norm to encounter ethical dilemmas in the course of our jobs.

  • craftygreenpoet

    Having said all that, I know a charity would say that high value prizes at an event attract high value donors and such donors can be very valuable to a charity, whoever its clients are. I also know that in Edinburgh there are probably a lot of wealthier people who will regularly go to the expensive charity events that have high value prizes and are regular contributors to the charity’s work. And also in many cases, these high value donors become good ambassadors for the charity as well.

    • Alison

      I believe that. In fundraising as in politics, you find lots of strange alliances and bedfellows, i.e. people who get behind the same thing, but for altogether different reasons. Once at a grassroots training I was taught, “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent alliances.” That surprised me for about five seconds, and then I saw the truth of it. The older I get, the more deeply I see that truth. Life is complex, and full of mixed motives and conflicts of interest.

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