Nonprofits urged to ’empower’ donors

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — If nonprofits want to be change agents, they need to move beyond asking donors for money and instead give them the knowledge and tools they need to make change happen.

That was the message that Jon Duschinsky, a cause activist and founder of bethechange, delivered Aug. 23 in Greensboro at the 8th annual NC Philanthropy Conference presented by the Triad, Triangle and Charlotte chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

“There’s never been a better time to change the world,” he told 430 fundraising professionals who attended the conference.

But despite the emergence of a broad range of business models to engage people, as well as a broad range of social media and other tools to “empower people and spread the message,” he said, nonprofits are “failing to seize these opportunities.”

‘Underpaid’ and ‘under-resourced’

Operating like “funnels,” nonprofits are driven “to raise more money every year,” he said , “but even if you could do that, it still wouldn’t solve the problem you were created to address.”

While passionate about their work, nonprofits are “underpaid” and “under-resourced,” with charitable giving representing only 2 percent of gross domestic product in the U.S., a share that has not changed in 40 years, he said.

“The rest of society has tasked you with changing the world, and given you 2 percent of resources to do it,” he said. “If we continue to do what we always have done, it will kill us.”

Reflecting the pressure and stress is the fact that fundraising professionals change jobs every 18 months, on average, Duschinsky  said.

“If we keep doing what we have always done, we’re not going to change the world,” he said. “You’re being stymied and prevented from doing that by the system. It’s time to change the system so we can change the world.”

Solving problems

Nonprofits were created to solve problems, he said, but they typically become preoccupied with talking about themselves, not the problems they were created to solve.

“We are having conversations with the rest of the world that the rest of the world doesn’t care about,” he said. “What you need is the idea that could unleash people interested in your cause if you let the cause  do the talking rather than letting the organization to the talking. Organizations organize problems, they don’t solve them.”

Donors need to hold boards accountable for the fact that their nonprofits typically focus on their own survival rather than on the problems they were created to address.

“We have endowed a group of people to sit at the head of organizations tasked with changing the world, and we have completely forgotten oversight, accountability,” he said.

“When an organization is created, its purpose changes from solving a problem it was set up to solve, to ensuring its sustainability,” he said. “Donors want to see problems solved.”

Knowledge an asset

Nonprofits’ greatest asset, he said, is their “understanding for how to effect change,” and they can make greater use of that knowledge by making it available to donors and others who care about the same cause.

“People don’t give money for tax reasons but to make change happen,” he said. “People want to associate themselves with values, not institutions, and make a difference.”

So instead of continuing to operate like “a hamster on a wheel, gathering resources to us  all the time,” he said, nonprofits should find ways to package, capture and share their knowledge.

“Empower people not only so you can be the change you wish to see in the world,” he said, “but so they can be the change.”

A new business model

That will require identifying the “compulsion” that drives the organization and the realistic outcome it wants to achieve; starting a “conversation that people actually want to be part of;” serving as a “champion” people can believe in; and “empowering” donors and other supporters “who passionately believe the thing you’re fighting for is worth fighting for,” Duschinsky said.

Ultimately, he said, nonprofits need to “flip” their business model.

Instead of asking donors to give money so their organizations can fix problems, he said, nonprofits need to engage donors by providing the tools and expertise they can use to be part of the solution to those problems.

“Turn your funnel upside down and empower stakeholders and donors to take the baton and run with it, so they feel they own the change you are trying to achieve,” he said. “You have to be the change you want to see in the world if you want it to happen.”

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