Coming under fire for offering services for free, by nonprofit funders who do not seem to understand the difference between “mission-driven” and “profit-driven”, forces me to suggest that we, as a sector, need to develop stronger language regarding these issues. Most of all, we need to work towards a different model of sustainability, so that we can pose alternate definitions when a potential funder equates “sustainability” with a system based on marginal returns for services offered…
…Responses appreciated. Backup on Tactical Phil would be awesome (I think I’m outnumbered).
One of the interesting attributes of this debate has been the way it has spun off in a couple different directions at once. Currently there are actually three different arguments being waged, 1) Are nonprofits that use earned income strategies better than donation based nonprofits? Does “sustainable” mean not relying on donations? 2) Is it appropriate to tell a group of nonprofits that some of them “suck” or is doing so counter-productive? 3) Should funders avoid wasting time with underperforming nonprofits and allocate capital to top performers? Should nonprofits that provide subsidized services/products to other nonprofits only deliver those services/products to effective nonprofits or any that ask for them?
It is the third question that Mike Brown was discussing when he made his now infamous comment. But I think the splintering of the discussion showcases the lack of shared language between the for-profit and nonprofit mindsets. Rather than call for reinforcements and retreat to our respective corners to refine our side’s language to better “win” the debate, I think we need to cross the great divide and create a shared Vocabulary of Philanthropy.
The “shorelines” and “international borders” that I’ve referred to are places of great turmoil where various forces push against each other. It is in these zones that people feel a need to protect themselves and so quickly fall into line with their side’s “official party line”. People feel safer in groups. But if this cross-disciplinary conversation is going to produce something new and not just be a spectacle, we need more people to drop their defenses and wade out into the middle ground and see what we can find.
For the record, I believe that “earned income” strategies have nothing to do with nonprofit sustainability. Philanthropic donations are a perfectly acceptable way to attain sustainability. The question is do you have a way to finance the service that you plan to offer. Philanthropic donations are just a way for one group to bear the cost of another group’s needs. There is nothing about charging the recipient of a service that makes a nonprofit more sustainable that “charging” another group (i.e. soliciting donations).