Philanthropy – not for nothing

“Do we send the hot chocolate out before or after we get the donation?” The young fundraising volunteer was confused about an upcoming No-Show Gala. (Here’s an explanation of “no-show” fundraisers.)To some on our committee, the idea of “inviting” friends to stay home seemed like a trick – weren’t we proposing to get something for nothing?

It made me think: aren’t we fundraisers always trying to get something for nothing? What other kind of business could frankly promise consumers absolutely nothing of tangible value in return for their money?

Of course, it’s not exactly “nothing” we’re selling. In most charitable transactions, the donor is buying something –a hot meal, an education –  for someone else. There usually is some tangible return on a donation (or “return on investment” as it’s become fashionable to say). But that’s not really what the donor receives in return for their contribution.

Very few donors will know exactly what their particular dollars paid for. They want the feeling that their money is doing good in the world. They want the feeling that they are part of something. They want to feel recognized, respected and honored for their contributions. And that’s not “nothing.”

The most successful for-profits know that we will pay extra for  feelings: that driving a Prius makes us better citizens or that Apple computers make us smarter.

Unlike philanthropies, these corporations must still deliver tangible products to consumers. Their product is the foundation on which they build that feeling. They measure that feeling in terms of brand equity – the extra dollar that Starbucks get for the essentially the same cup of coffee you can buy at the corner cafe).

The beauty of philanthropy is that we really can sell pure brand equity – a feeling – to our donors. That’s how we generate the large margins over cost that make our program work possible.

We may choose to provide a party or a premium to evoke that feeling. But we get into trouble when we focus on promoting and delivering those tangible things instead of our real product – the real and valuable human feelings that philanthropy delivers to donors: belonging, meaning, empathy.

And that’s not nothing.

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