Last month on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, my friend Perla Ni put forth the argument that the recession would cause donors to respond to different types of language and rhetoric.
Peter Frumkin shared his theory that nonprofits who have been using the “rhetoric of reason and rationale” may begin using the “rhetoric of emotion” (using appeals to “morality” or “obligation” to maintain and attract donors). I agree with his prediction. During these difficult economic times, when all of us know someone who has or is at risk of losing their job, it’s much easier for us to relate to the appeals to our conscience and our heart. That’s not to say that there is no room for “expert” evaluations and quantitative metrics. It’s about degree and balance of the heart and the head.
Nell Edgington wrote a direct response to Perla on her blog Social Velocity.
Seriously? We’re going to squander this opportunity that the crisis in our financial system affords and go back to the tin-cup mentality of nonprofit revenue generation? I love Peter Frumkin, and am actually working with him on a project so I know he loves a good debate, but I completely disagree with this notion. Nonprofits may think that appealing to emotion is the way to go, but that will only set them back. To me, it is akin to Marty Linsky’s recent piece about hunkering down versus resetting in these difficult times. As Linsky puts it, we have two choices and the “hunkering down” option looks like:
Stephanie Strom’s piece in the Times on Friday of last week showering sympathy on the well-intentioned charities going belly up, rather than seeing this moment as an opportunity to rethink their priorities, eliminate duplication, introduce good management practices, and get rid of programs and people who are not performing well.
Whereas resetting is about understanding how systems are changing and that we have to adapt to the longterm. We must embrace the change and move with it:
Here’s what Reset might look like…(1) Funding risk-takers, creators, and inventors, small and large, in manufacturing, financial services, nonprofits, and even academia…(2) targeting…spending and investing now for the long term, like…supporting new faces and burgeoning success stories in education, people and ideas to help rescue the current school-age generation…
Focusing on emotion, heart-strings, “obligation” in order to try to keep a fledgling nonprofit operating might be appealing, but it is a hunkering down mentality. These times call for a complete resetting of how we do things. Nonprofit fundraisers and Executive Directors don’t have the luxury of “appeal[ing] to our conscience and our heart.”
My take is that a “Reset” in philanthropy means rejecting both “emotional, kneejerk giving” and “quantitative metrics”. It does not have to be an either/or question.
Will donors respond to emotional pitches to help struggling organizations? Of course. Do donors want to invest in solutions that can create lasting change? Of course. I defy you to find any donor who would say otherwise.
Giving with your heart and your brain is not two separate choices. Every day we make decisions that balance the urges of our heart and brain. Doing what “feels right” is not always the right decision. Ask anyone who has ever started working out. It might be the right thing to do, but your body makes you feel like you should stop!
I would hope that we can strive for a philanthropic field where our empathy drives why give and our analysis of what works drives where and how we give.
Of course, just to be clear, Perla does agree with me. One year ago she wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times titled: Use Your Heart and Head When Giving.