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Nonprofit Operations and Funding: Middle Ground Can Be Good

Generational workers are not the focus of this article, but I’d like to start there. I’m going to take a minute to brag on Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) in the workplace. Years ago, I wouldn’t have pictured being able to boast about my age group, because companies often looked at Gen Xers like they weren’t exactly sure what to do with us. We didn’t fit into the Baby Boomer mold; therefore, we did not always fit into the corporate model that had dominated for decades. But that was the 1990s. Now? We are the rockstars of business. (I warned you I was going to brag!)

Let’s leave aside all the Gen Xers who are successful entrepreneurs, the ones who are well-known philanthropists, and the many who are completely at home in a gig economy; and instead, we’ll focus on Gen Xers at the management and executive level of companies. Specifically, we’ll zero in on managers and executives currently working at nonprofit organizations.

In my opinion, Gen Xers are the great connectors. We are often the intermediaries between Baby Boomers and Millennials. We understand enough about each of them to function as translators. We push one group to think beyond what they are comfortable with, and we try to help the other group find ways to get work done within organizational structures without dimming their enthusiasm and light.

If There Are 2 Sides, There’s Always a Middle

That middle ground is what I want to talk about. In the nonprofit sector, as in society, there are many situations that have the potential to be very polarized, even if it is accidental polarization based on the verbiage we use to describe situations.

Divides might be caused by the ways we perceive donors and clients. Differences of opinion often arise regarding the best “model” for fundraising to support organizational missions. And there are always people who believe the cause they care about is more important than the causes other people choose to support.

When there is a wide disparity of opinions, chasms exist between the “sides.” Here are a just few examples of opposites that can be found in philanthropy and the independent sector:

I’ve included some live links in the list above if you would like to learn more about emerging schools of thought regarding philanthropy and nonprofits.

The Best Intentions

Whatever types of gaps we’re talking about, they very often are created because of breakdowns in communication, or because people try to fix problems based on their own perceptions or experiences… which may not always be relevant to the situations at hand.

In “Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results,” David Peter Strogh describes how we are often stymied by our own good intentions — that there are times when we act with the best possible motivation, but we do so in a way that actually exacerbates the problem or misses the mark altogether because we don’t start from a place of full understanding.

I recently heard a good example of this during a presentation by Hilarie Bass, founder of the Bass Institute. Hilarie described a group of employees at a hospital that noticed many new mothers with limited resources were leaving the maternity ward with their new baby, but without a car seat. The employees were concerned and wanted to help. They took up a collection and were able to purchase a quantity of car seats to give to the new mothers. But when they started giving out the car seats, they found out that the majority of the women they were trying to help didn’t own cars! The women relied on public transportation, which rendered the car seats virtually useless.

This is a good example of people having the best intentions, but flawed planning and execution. In this case, simply asking the mothers if they needed car seats, or asking them what they needed at all, would have saved time, money and potentially some embarrassment. There are also situations when donors do not ask people what they need, erroneously assuming that the people in need do not know what would help them. With the implication being that those in need require someone else to tell them what is right for them or their community, this scenario falls into the savior / needy category on the list above.

Polar Models

Another example from the list of “opposites” is donor-centered fundraising versus community-centric fundraising. Penelope Burk made donor-centered fundraising the standard for fundraising in the early 2000s, and it is still a main fundraising methodology today. It is based on the idea that nonprofits should center the entire experience of giving around the donor — communicate with them the way they like; thank them sincerely and often; don’t judge the reasons people give, just understand the reasons. From Cygnus Applied Research’s website, “Donor-Centered Fundraising is an integrated and collaborative approach to raising money that inspires donors to remain loyal longer and give more generously sooner. It is easy to understand; it focuses on the things that make fundraising profitable; and it comes from donors themselves.” The sector has spent many years honing the donor experience to make the act of charitable giving feel good for the donor.

An infographic of evolving funding idealogies

Credit: Phil-Com

Enter Vu Le and his colleagues and their model of community-centric fundraising. From their website, “Community-Centric Fundraising is a fundraising model that is grounded in equity and social justice. We prioritize the entire community over individual organizations, foster a sense of belonging and interdependence, present our work not as individual transactions but holistically, and encourage mutual support between nonprofits.” In a recent presentation, Vu described how he believes donor-centered fundraising often creates a “white savior complex” by seeming to value the donor as a more important part of the equation than the people or community being served.

Crossing the Divide

You can see how these two fundraising models exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. I am not proposing that either is right or wrong. What I am saying is that while the chasm between the two schools of thought is often rife with disagreement, it also leaves a lot of room for a combined approach. It isn’t likely that many organizations that have dedicated years to perfecting their donor-centered approach will decide to hit the reboot button and start over from the ground up with a community-centric model. They don’t have to.

In some cases, the answer may be to change methods completely. In other situations, a compromise is the answer. In many environments, a stepped approach to change over time — taking into account how the world around us is changing — is the way to go. Nonprofit structures and philosophies don’t need to be all-or-nothing propositions. They could be a calculated combination of ideas or they could be stepped evolution from one method to another.

What is right for a nonprofit in one space may not be right for another type of nonprofit. We don’t need to make performing arts organizations and social justice organizations look and act the same.

The middle ground is full of people who are continually willing to learn and take the best from any schools of thought in order to make their work, their nonprofits, our communities and our societal systems increasingly better for everyone. In the same way that businesses happily can use Gen Xers to mediate between Boomers and Millennials, bringing out the best in both, the independent sector as a whole benefits when there are willing intermediaries, people who help nonprofits understand the characteristics, benefits and pitfalls of varying courses of action, and then choose a path that is best for all of the nonprofit’s stakeholders.


Editor’s Note: This “Corner Office” column was originally published in the November/December 2020 print edition of NonProfit PRO. Click here to subscribe.

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