Saturday, December 15, 2007

Non-Profits and Philanthropy: Can we cross the threshold?

funny picturesWhen I don't know anything about a subject I'm interested in, I read. The Internet is invaluable for this. (Jon Horton and I had a great discussion about the benefits of wiring the Internet directly to the brain. I'll sign up for those clinical trials.)

So, to discover what the heck I've gotten myself into, I am reading non-profit blogs and blogs of those that advise and market to non-profits. And I'm reading philanthropy blogs and blogs of those that advise philanthropists. And critics of both. The more I read, the more disturbed I become. It seems that both sides are bloated and byzantine, no different from the industries that surround and make up our federal income tax or social security systems. So much of the charity resources of the world are going to support the industry, not the work that needs done.

I have tremendous reservations about stepping into that world with Scrollworks. I've been asking myself why.

Is it because I don't think Scrollworks can compete? To some extent, yes. We are unsophisticated and naive. We don't have four color brochures or a budget for lunches with potential donors. No foundation can look at our record when deciding to give--there isn't one. I think Scrollworks is a very good idea. I think it is worth the risk--after all, I'm donating what is basically my entire life savings, pitiful though that is. But when this issue comes up and everyone's answer is to just finesse it with words, I don't like it. I'd much rather lay it all out on the table. Is there a philanthropist out there who gets that involved before making their first cuts based on a form someone submits? From what I read, no. And if that's the case, what's the point of pursuing that avenue of funding?

Which brings up another major problem I have with the industrial nature of non-profits and philanthropy. There are probably a lot of people out there like us, even some less sophisticated and with fewer skills and resources. Undoubtedly they could do some powerful work to better the human condition. But they won't get the chance because they can't cross the threshold. I'm sure many don't even try, while others struggle on with nothing. I remember getting a call at MOP from an elderly lady who was trying to teach violin to some preschoolers in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Birmingham. She needed help. She couldn't afford MOP's price. I also fielded a call from someone in the Midfield City Schools desperate to get string classes for their students. That system also couldn't afford MOP's price. Where could these people go from there? How could they find the time, energy and knowledge to access possible resources? My days are already filled with work on behalf of MYO and Scrollworks--talking to people, researching, preparing for events and rehearsals--yet I know that for us to gain the skills to cross the same threshold, I need to attend just about every event that the Non-Profit Resource Center emails me about. Stop researching concert venues to drive to a meeting to glean a tidbit or two on how to nuance a grant proposal? That just seems wrong, wrong, wrong.

When I was still working for a corporation, back before Molly was born, I stopped giving to the United Way because I read enough to be concerned with how the bureaucracy worked. I was disappointed with the Girl Scouts when I talked to upper-middle-class parents who got scholarships for their daughters to attend camp. They were better off than my family, but I would never have dreamed to apply on Molly's behalf because camp was very reasonable and I knew there must be many girls that truly needed the assistance. I have come to realize that the only way to know how my contribution will be used is to donate time and effort, and I've generously and unhesitatingly given both resources to the Girl Scouts, the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the Music Opportunity Program, and now MYO and Scrollworks. (For those who don't know, Nick and I have taken no salary for any of our work with MYO--and I've pretty much been working on it full time since June.)

I think that is the answer to the problem. Somehow, the giving and receiving has to go beyond forms, and be part of a personal relationship. The non-profit has to be willing to throw open their books, their doors and their hearts without reservation. Not in a presentation, not during a VIP tour--but when the air conditioning is broken, the hard drive just crashed, and a student drops their instrument. And the philanthropists must make the time and effort to learn, to get the feel of the organization. To really matter, to really make a difference everyone must get engaged and involved at every level. There is no easy way.

And people will always want the easy way. They will go to Guidestar rather than do some work, and for small donations, that's cost-effective for the donor. I'm not sure I still wouldn't recommend, though, that even the small donor make the time and effort to find charities they can get engaged with and give to those. (Ha. At least I can say I'm putting my money where my mouth is.) And I guess taking the easy way explains something I've puzzled over: why some philanthropists continue to give to flawed organizations without requiring the needed changes. You still look good, like a thoughtful, generous soul, and still have people talking about you with great reverence when you give lots of money to an organization that on the surface looks worthwhile, and you perhaps even fool yourself about your good works. Yet you avoid taking a real stand or making the effort to fix the problems or finding a better place for your money. It's too difficult, too much work. And it's too bad for the world.

I am not the goddess of perfection. I have made and continue to make many mistakes. But I have sincerely given everything I am and I have to my family and, now that my children are grown, to these organizations. I believe in Girl Scouts. I feel like ASFA is my family. I care deeply about what MOP is trying to do. And MYO and Scrollworks are my passion. I have worked so hard to do the right thing, to take action, to make a difference. I lie awake wondering if I'm choosing correctly. I don't know. Am I?


Tom Canavan said...

Dear Goddess of Perfection, I too have wasted hundreds of hours trying to get foundations, philanthropy's, and other entities that claim to want to do good. It's true that it's not enough to come up with an idea that would cure the problem that these people claim they want to fix. The latest mind numbingly exercise I've engaged in was filling out about 99 pages of details for the Skoll Foundation only to get to the last page of their online application to find that I have to have 30 to 50 employees and have made profits in the last three years before they would consider me and my idea worthy of consideration. Wouldn't you think they might have mentioned that first? And why would any group making a profit need help?

So after years of trying to offer my assistance to people that were claiming they were in the business of trying to help others where specifically I could help them I gave up on them.

Based on what's wrong with charities, philanthropies, foundations etc I designed what I hope to be a non-profit that does cross that threshold you are talking about.

If you will, Let me know what you think and if you feel the project
deserves support please help.

As far as anyone willing to work there way out of poverty my home and cell phone number is on the contact page. I have no forms to fill out or things to buy there.

Tom Canavan
The Benefactor Project at,

Jeane Goforth said...

From what I've read--we're definitely on the same page. Wonder who else is out there?