Two weeks ago, the executive director of Idealist, a nonprofit job board, sent out an emailsaying his organization was facing a critical financial challenge. The openness with which he discussed the issues they were facing reminded many people of the public appeal by FORGE over a year ago that ended up raising significant money from the Tactical Philanthropy Community and landed FORGE in the Wall Street Journal. Today, I’m featuring two guest posts about Idealist.
Read Part 1 here.
By Rich Polt, Louder Than Words
47 seconds ago (as of this writing), Idealist.org received a $35 donation from Shelburne, VT. Now bear with me while I hit refresh on my Web browser … just another second … wait for it … BAM! Less than 2 minutes have elapsed and a $20 donation just came in from Laurel, MD.
This is what life has been like at Idealist.org since Executive Director Ami Dar sent out his “help save us” email/tweet on Wednesday, January 27. In just eight days, Idealist brought in $143,452, about 29 percent of their half-million dollar target. The donations have come in from 4,293 people, which averages out to about $33.40 per donation. Astounding! You can watch the process unfold for yourself on Idealist’s recently installed real-time fundraising counter here.
For a moment, let’s set aside messy issues like organizational strategy, public relations fallout, pathways to social “profitability,” and so forth. What Ami has been able to accomplish over these last few days is darn impressive and speaks volumes about the community and credibility Idealist has fostered since its inception in 1995. And how many of us wish that, like Ami, we had the network and the political capital required to elicit $143,452 in donations with an email and a few tweets?
In October of 2008, Kjerstin Erickson would have given almost anything for that kind of fundraising power. Kjerstin, as you might recall if you’ve been part of the Tactical Philanthropy community for a while, is Executive Director of FORGE, an international nonprofit doing critical work in war-torn African communities. On October 17, 2008, Kjerstin wrote a blog on Social Edge titled “We’re in trouble…,” in which she also issued an organizational distress call: “it’s time to send conventional wisdom to hell. The truth is that though our programs have never been stronger, our bank accounts have never been lower. We’re in trouble… and I can’t sit back and act as if everything is okay.”
In the wake of both Ami’s and Kjerstin’s communications, lots of intelligent folks from the Nonprofit sector offered a great deal of critique. On this very blog, Sean invoked the rare superlative by calling Kjerstin’s Social Edge post “The Most Important Nonprofit Blog.” He was impressed and excited by how Kjerstin embraced utter transparency and was open to exploring new models to achieve long-term success. This stands in stark contrast to Nell Edgington’s post in which she calls Ami’s public appeal “a mistake” because he failed to articulate Idealist’s long-term plan for ensuring this doesn’t happen again.
To be certain, the situations facing Idealist and FORGE were and are not the same. These are very different organizations in different phases of their life-cycle, with drastically different causes, and completely different business models. But as a communications specialist, I’m much more interested in the similarities here. Both Idealist and FORGE required an immediate infusion of cash, both E.D.s went public with their appeals via the social Web, and both appeals were met with short-term, game-changing responses (Kjerstin received a healthy dose of funding and a great deal of pro-bono support to get FORGE back on its feet).
So does this mean if you’re a nonprofit in trouble, you should be issuing a public S.O.S. call? I certainly don’t think you can answer that question with an outright yes or no, but I do think a sinking nonprofit would be foolish if it didn’t at least consider the option. In Kjerstin’s case, she had absolutely nothing to lose. FORGE was going to go under anyway, so she decided to make a Hail Mary pass. Many variables contributed to FORGE’s eventual success, but I believe these were the two most important: 1) The passion and dedication that Kjerstin exudes is palpable. This comes across on the social Web and I’m certain it’s why she was able to rally the troops, and 2) She was open to the critique that followed. She put her ego aside and said the cause is more important than me or my reputation.
Idealist on the other hand, is not in a do or die situation. As a more mature organization with a larger infrastructure, they have been bleeding money each month since the economic downturn. Idealist needs these funds not to survive, but to “breathe, recover, and plan ahead.” Like Kjerstin, Ami could only do this kind of thing ONCE. But for different reasons. As an organization grows, it accrues goodwill, just as one amasses chips in a casino. By issuing an S.O.S., Ami has cashed in his chips. The onus is squarely on Idealist to convert these funds in to demonstrable outcomes. They cannot make a similar appeal until they’ve once again stockpiled goodwill.
Like Kjerstin, Ami is passionate about his work, and like Kjerstin, he is not dismissive of the critiques that are rolling in almost as fast as the donations (he responded to Nell in the comments section of her blog). Overall, I am very impressed with how Idealist has been able to grow such a dedicated network and I commend Ami for tapping all that goodwill in the organization’s time of need. Incidentally, I spoke with Ami earlier in the week, and he told me that although this has been a stressful time, it has also been strangely wonderful because he was not aware of just how much goodwill there actually was out there. Sometimes that kind of validation is just the shot of adrenaline an organization needs to reaffirm its commitment to mission and cause.
All this said, I do believe that Ami’s note could have been used to greater effect, but that is me splitting hairs as a communications dude (see this post on my agency blog Communicate Good if you’re interested in learning more).
In conclusion, I think what we’ve learned over the last year is that the “nonprofit S.O.S.” is just another arrow in an organization’s quiver of options, when facing hard times. But we’ll still need to see many more S.O.S.s before we can gauge their true impact or develop a comprehensive list of “best practices” (do you know of others besides FORGE and Idealist?). By the way – I just checked the Idealist Web site and they’re up to $144,687; $1,235 in donations since I started writing this. Wow!