This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Jeff Tuller. Jeff started his career in the very private sector, with over a decade at financial firms Bear Stearns and State Street Bank. In 2001 he made the leap of faith into the non-profit sector, beginning at the SIFEE Educational Foundation and most recently at The Atlantic Philanthropies. He recently supplemented his MS in Computer Science with an MPA from NYU’s Wagner School for Public Service.
By Jeff Tuller
PreScript: I was just about to send in this entry to the One Post Challenge when I saw today’s earlier entry from the clever yet mysterious blogger behind DontTellTheDonor. In the name of full disclosure, my name is Jeff Tuller (jeff a-t socialmarkets d-o-t org), I am President and Chairman of socialmarkets, and I hereby pledge to offer the following in response:
If my post wins the contest, I will donate not just the $500 prize to the nonprofit which gets the most votes, but an additional $.01 for the first 100 posted comments (a penny for your thoughts??) So if you want to get the best results to the best nonprofit, work those contacts and get those posts rolling in!
We now return you to our regularly scheduled program… let the games begin!
Sleeping With The Enemy
At the recent housewarming for our new nonprofit and the other start-ups that share our co-op workspace here in NYC, we got lots of love for our novel take on the donor-charity relationship. Amid the general enthusiasm, someone suggested it might be burdensome for some nonprofits to adopt the outcomes-based model we champion. This sobering idea was put to bed to seemingly unanimous satisfaction by one of our fans offering this rationale: “Hey, nobody likes being subjected to airport security either, but that’s the reality of today’s world, so you have to just comply or you could get us all blown up…” At the time I didn’t argue the point, but the statement clearly didn’t go down easy, since it’s several weeks later, and there’s a question that’s still dogging me: In the analogy between nonprofit transparency and bomb screening, who are the terrorists?
I just want to know who the bad guys are, whose threat necessitates the humiliating screening process in the first place. Is it me? I like to think not, at least not with my socialmarkets hat on. In a nutshell, socialmarkets is a marketplace which views donations as investments of social capital, and non-profits’ success in meeting stated goals as the basis for the return on that investment. It should be as appealing to nonprofits looking for donors who will appreciate their work, as it is for donors looking for nonprofits who offer the most bang for their buck. Even beyond the funding issue, the measures of success or failure in meeting their goals are hugely valuable for a nonprofit’s own internal management. With all that on tap, I should be in the clear, no?
But I’ve worn several other hats over the years, from under which I’m not sure I as easily dodge the bullet. I’ve worked at a large foundation, where it was easy to call the grantee relationship a ‘partnership’, but less so to divorce that relationship of the inevitable dysfunction when one party is writing checks and the other is waiting by the mailbox. I’ve also worked on Wall Street, where I made a lot of money and gave a little of it away, mostly to assuage the guilt that accompanies being a have in a world increasingly efficient at reminding you how outnumbered you are by have-nots. When I find myself missing the days of fat paychecks and zero-balance credit cards, I console myself with a truly macro-economic perspective: somewhere out there in the cosmic accounting system, I’m carrying far less debt… and guilt.
I also take consolation in that much of what I learned while sporting my Wall Street hat is still applicable today. To wit, I think an investment approach to donating is more than just possible, it’s smart. However donors looking for objective data to help them evaluate their nonprofit investment options currently have no place to turn. For lack of alternatives, they might go to sites like GuideStar and Charity Navigator, which can tell them something about what a nonprofit spends, but nothing about what all that spending accomplishes. That’s like offering half a balance sheet, a pretty pitiful basis for evaluation of an investment in any context.
It was also while wearing my Wall Street hat that I would have agreed with the majority of American donors, whose confidence in nonprofit’s ability to spend their donations wisely is polling at historic lows. Ten years, two non-profits and one MPA later I am happy to report I am whistling a different tune, but sorry to report there are more people who think like I did then out there now. I actually know some of these people, and for the most part they’re not evil, they’re just lazy. An occasional highly publicized nonprofit scandal is all they need to reinforce the convenient image of the nonprofit sector as poorly managed across the board.
So the fickle finger of blame may point back to me, but I share it with a conspiracy of guilty parties. The people giving money as well as those taking it bear some responsibility for the mistrust which sustains the status quo. I’ll buy the analogy that philanthropy wants to fly, and with a little poetry, even soar – but unlike the real flight industry, there are actually no players in our game invested in bringing the plane down. Both charities and their supporters are co-invested in the successful execution of the missions which specify their particular vision of a better world. That’s a pretty powerful starting point for re-examining the way we see ourselves, including the recognition that the thing we’re so afraid of might just be our own reflection.