Philanthropic climate change: Money no longer grows on trees

How do responsibly run, major non-profits raise money in today’s climate without crying “emergency?” Or do they have to?

iStock_moneyIn the past few months, I’ve been involved professionally and as a volunteer in a number of fundraising events and campaigns.

The good news is that people are still giving, quite generously, to organizations and individuals in need.

But the landscape of individual giving looks dramatically different, thanks to the economic downturn of 2008-9.

Most of us know someone who has lost what he or she thought was a secure job. We know someone struggling, or are struggling ourselves, with health insurance payments as high as 25 percent of take-home pay. We know people who couldn’t afford insurance or were refused it and who are now being crushed by bills for treatment of cancer or heart attack. Many of us know small community organizations, or tiny local businesses, that can’t pay their rent. Many of us who have traveled to third world countries are haunted by the difference in resources and opportunities, especially for women and ethnic minorities.

My observation is that in this economic climate, those who have good jobs and extra money are using their resources to help individuals and small organizations to address specific, immediate, and time-critical problems. (Note focus of Jolkona, a fundraising foundation website focused on attracting a new generation of “passionate” donors who want “connection” and “involvement” with recipients.)

This is not good news for many established non-profit organizations. Quite a few of them have evolved to provide deep, complex, well though-out  structures for communities — from arts education and social services to historic preservation and environmental policy. But they don’t deal in heart-rending emergencies, or enable donors to finance quick, visible solutions.

How can these major non-profits compete for the donor dollar in today’s climate — without crying “emergency?” Or should they?

That was then, and this is now

I am putting my indispensable Harvest timesheet clock on “unbillable” for a few minutes to talk about what’s been flooding our email inboxes for the past few days: Requests for money, from both business enterprises and charities.

Like the current economic situation (dare I use the R-word?), it’s only going to get worse.

So, I’m sitting here thinking about what I hope things will look like two years down the road, when the bad times begin to recede.

And the answer is: Different. A lot of these businesses and non-profits will be gone. Which ones will remain will be determined, in large part, by their ability to adapt to reality. Starting right now.

To all those organizations asking me to fund your efforts to keep presenting the same type and level of services you did during the boom years, the answer is: Absolutely no. Sure, I liked the plays you presented last year. But perhaps next year you need to consider ones with lower production costs?

Come back to me with a plan for how you are going to be leaner and meaner during the next two years, and I’ll give long, hard thought to what I can contribute to help you survive.

To all those businesses asking me to pay $110 for a sweater with a trendy label (that will be discounted to $29.99 in January): Fat chance. If I really need a sweater, I’ll be buying it from the local consignment shop.

I regret that people spent so much effort during my childhood teaching me to say “Please” and “Thank You” without bothering to teach me how to say “No.” I’m told that now that I’ve learned to say it, I’m a bit too emphatic and harsh. But something tells me I’ll be getting plenty of practice in the coming months refining my delivery.

Perhaps I’ll try softening “No” with a phrase my friend Charlotte Goldstein, a child of the Depression, uses to great effect: “That was then — and this is now.”