How to Put Stupid Into Major Gifts, Part 1
It happened several years ago. And I haven’t forgotten it. And when I heard about it I thought, really? Can anyone be so stupid? Now, I know stupid is a strong word and usually I don’t use it. But really, this was one of the worst twists of logic I have ever seen. And then I got to thinking: “It’s not that weird. There are quite a few people who do this in the major gifts world.” And that line of thinking is what prompted me to write about it.
Here’s the back story.
The Canadian Revenue Agency, like the IRS here in the U.S., had told Oxfam that it can no longer try to prevent poverty around the world. It can only alleviate poverty—because preventing poverty might benefit people who are not already poor.
You can read all the details at Canada's TheStar.com.
Back then, Robert Fox, executive director for Oxfam, said this whole situation was “absurd.” Speaking in an interview with The Canadian Press, he said: “Their interpretation was that preventing poverty may or may not involve poor people. A group of millionaires could get together to prevent their poverty, and that would not be deemed a charitable purpose.”
Philippe Brideau, spokesman for the Canada Revenue Agency, said legal precedents mean charities cannot help people not already impoverished from falling into poverty. “Purposes that relieve poverty are charitable because they provide relief only to eligible beneficiaries, those in need,” Brideau said in an email.
“However, the courts have not found the risk of poverty as being equivalent to actually being in need. Therefore, as the courts have indicated, an organization cannot be registered with the explicit purpose of preventing poverty.”
He added that charities are still allowed to teach money management, budgeting and other life skills, which could lead to the prevention of poverty.
And blah, blah, blah, blah.
Now, you might be saying: “Richard, this has nothing to do with me and my major gift work. So why are you writing about this?”
Well, here’s the connection.
The bureaucrats at the CRA in Canada have very little if any understanding of human need and the systems that suppress and oppress people. So, they are defining what human need is and then drawing a line as to what qualifies as charitable. It is all a head game. It is a fundamental lack of understanding, there is no heart in the discussion. No feeling. No first-hand experience. None of that.
Likely, not one of those folks has ever had a feeling or experienced an emotion related to what it’s like to be poor or on the edge of being poor—or what it is like to be powerless or oppressed—to be the victim of an unjust system, etc. So, the whole thing has become a process of the head and logic.
And that is exactly what happens when a misguided major gift officer (MGO) writes a piece for a donor or prepares a presentation for a donor that is totally devoid of the human experience and how life really works. Instead, it is all facts, figures and logic with very little copy about the tragedy of human need. And that is how stupid gets into major gifts. The MGO ignores that the whole major gifts thing is about meeting human need in all of its expressions. It is not some abstract thing. It is real life! Real drama. Real situations.
I was once reviewing a proposal a MGO had created for donor. It was nice. It was tidy. It had a lot of facts. It was helpful, to a point. But it was wrong. The MGO was all in his head. He had accurately captured and written about what the organization did and how they did it. He had then proposed what else the organization was going to do and that a certain amount of money was needed. He had then asked if the donor could give that sum.
I wrote back and said: “Robert (not his real name). This is good. But you are only half way there. You don’t have anything in here about the need. Nothing. Why is your organization even doing this work? Tell the donor what the need is. And as you are doing it, feel it yourself, so you can express exactly what the people you are serving are going through. Take the donor right into your client’s homes and have her experience the anxiety, the fear, the shame, the anger—help her experience what it feels like to be manipulated, used and oppressed. Then she will know why what you are saying is important.”
Well, Robert went away, wrote some more and came back to me. And it was still wrong. Robert was stuck in the same place the Canadian bureaucrats were stuck in. He was in his head. It was all about logic, process and facts. It had very little to do with real life and how real life works. Stupid had crept into his major gifts process. OK, not stupid—let’s call it fog or lack of clarity. He had lost his way.
What our Canadian friends in the CRA don’t understand is that life is messy and hardly logical—that life is cruel and that there are thousands of ways people oppress others through the systems they create. So, they create rules and regulations that really do not represent life as it really is. And that is what some MGOs do as well. They create offers and communications that do not represent life as it really is.
Jeff and I see this happening far too often, which is why I am writing about this.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.