Focus, People! Focus!
Mad as hell, and not gonna take it anymore? Get in line.
These are vexing times. There’s plenty to worry about and a lot of issues that need action. That’s probably why we keep hearing various nonprofit leaders telling us things like: It’s our duty as a sector to speak up about (insert issue here)!
I hate to come out against activism, but it’s precisely not our duty as a sector to speak out on the outrage du jour.
Our duty is to fulfill our missions. And that takes single-minded focus. Taking your eyes off your mission — even when something else is important — is a flat-out betrayal of your donors; it’s like playing a shell game with their support — even if they might agree with you on the issue at hand. (And don’t count on that: Donors are a widely diverse group.)
Failure to focus is exactly the same thing as misusing funds.
Your mission is clearly defined. It’s in writing. It’s a public trust. Here in the U.S., it’s subsidized by the tax code. More important, your mission is a sacred trust with your donors.
If your mission is specifically to end the war, restore civil liberties or save the planet — go for it. If it’s not, you have no business deciding for your donors to shift their support in that direction. Your donors have chosen you because they agree with your mission. Your intelligence and right-thinking about other things are besides the point.
I can sympathize if you have a sense that your mission should be larger. Intelligent people think that way, looking for wider patterns and deeper meanings.
Let’s say you’re a performing-arts organization. Climate change — to name just one issue — could have a huge impact on you. Twenty feet of seawater sloshing through your auditorium certainly would be a problem. In fact, if things reach that point, water damage to your hall would be the least of your worries.
It’s not at all far-fetched for a global-thinking leader of a performing-arts organization to feel compelled to speak and act on climate change — and to use all the clout at his or her disposal to do something positive.
You’ll get no argument from me about the harmful potential of climate change. But a performing-arts organization cannot suddenly become a quasi-environmental organization — unless the two causes are somehow both in the charter to begin with. (Which is a pretty cool idea, actually.)
A shift of focus breaks trust and demolishes community, even if it’s well-intentioned. Let’s look at our relationship — yours and mine. You (the reader) and I (the writer) along with FundRaising Success magazine (the publisher) form a sort of ad hoc community of interest. You’re reading this because you have some reason to believe there’s going to be something here about fundraising that’s worth knowing.
Now it happens that I can work up a pretty good rant about the Bush administration. I also have strong opinions about certain Microsoft products, unreadable fonts and triangular postage stamps. As far as I’m concerned, my beliefs are 100 percent correct and very important. All right-thinking people should (and, as far as I know, do) agree with me.
But if I’m paying attention, I’ll remember that you aren’t here for my thoughts on any old thing I feel like mentioning. You’re here for the fundraising stuff. If I used this space to push my other agendas, you’d probably stop reading. And you’d be right to do so. My decision to expand the discussion beyond what we’ve agreed on would put an end to our community. (Don’t worry: I’m pretty sure my FundRaising Success editors would keep my irrelevant thoughts from reaching you in the first place.)
That’s how it is for nonprofits and their donors. It’s a tightly defined community with a specific purpose. When organizations get all concerned about issues outside their missions and shift focus, they violate the community, usually breaking it.
I’m all for paying attention to the world we live in and making a difference. You don’t need to limit your personal impact to the mission of your organization.
Here’s how you do it: as yourself. Not as an organization. Not as a sector.
If the organization you’re part of is not addressing a specific issue you care about, find one that does. Support it with your voice, your time and your money. It’s even possible that you need to change jobs to better align your passion with your profession.
By all means, work for peace, justice and the American way. Just don’t drag your donors along. They have their own causes. FS
Jeff Brooks is creative director at Columbia, Md.-based database marketing agency Merkle.