My organization helps needy kids but makes them sit backstage during our black-tie fundraising gala.

Advice on how to make the world better.
May 27 2009 7:02 AM

Get Out of My Black-Tie Dinner, Kid

My organization helps needy children but makes them sit backstage during our fundraising gala.

Dear Patty and Sandy,

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I was briefly president of a nonprofit with a large board. During my tenure, I discovered that the board often steered the organization away from its stated objectives. One example was a black-tie fundraising dinner for economically disadvantaged youth. A few articulate kids were brought in to give testimonials during the dinner, but they were not allowed to sit or mingle with the donors during the festivities. Instead, they were consigned to pizza backstage. Recurring incidents like this caused me to leave after a fairly short time.

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What do you think of organizations that use their clients to raise money? And is there a right way to do it?

—Robert

Sandy:

Those Christian Children's Fund commercials asking us to donate so doe-eyed Maria doesn't go hungry and events where lovable clients tell stories of how the organization helped them triumph over adversity—they work. There's no question that individual stories are powerful tools for fundraising. There is clear evidence that stories and images that cause us to feel negative emotions, such as guilt or sadness, are found to be most successful at soliciting donations.

I don't see anything wrong with smart marketing, but I do take issue with organizations that compromise their mission—or their clients' well-being—while they're at it. This is where it sounds as if Robert's organization went wrong.

In a past column, my mom mentioned an aboriginal quote she has hanging above her desk in Seattle: "If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." If the organization is committed to empowering these young people, then every way it interacts with them must be done with empowerment as the goal.

Patty:

Robert, as the president you should have used your power to pull these kids into the event in a way that worked for them and for your fundraiser. I have real concerns about do-gooders who conduct themselves as if the "giver" (the board in this case) is in a different stratosphere than the "receiver." I struggled with the tricky balance between giver and receiver during my time at the Gates Foundation. Going to see the work we funded in Africa, India, and Asia, I was often met with gracious presentations, welcomes, and accolades—and even gifts of flowers or other local products—meant to show gratitude for the efforts we were funding. Yet the people doing the really hard work were the ones who were praising me. I went home to a hotel room each night while they put in additional hours of hard work to improve their lives, their families, and their villages. Why should I get the accolades? Of course, the problem isn't when you receive praise; the problem is when you begin to believe you deserve it.

Every nonprofit leader or board member would benefit from spending a few hours every year considering how they are leading. Are they "walking the talk" and pursuing their goals in a way that empowers those they seek to serve? Or are they unintentionally doing things (such as at Robert's dinner) that disempower or disrespect their clients? Every nonprofit manager should follow the leadership concept known as "servant leadership." Wikipedia describes it as leadership that emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. In his seminal article defining servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf spoke of the need for us to use the following test in determining whether we are really performing as servant leaders: "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

This should be the test for all fundraisers who wish to use those they serve as part of their marketing efforts. Do they, while they are being served (or while they are presenting their story to a room full of donors), become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servant leaders? If the answer is yes, then go right ahead. Done right, partnering with your clients or beneficiaries is a blessing for all, from the donors, who will better be able to understand the work their dollars are funding, to the clients, who will be better prepared to lead in the future. Done wrong, you have a troubling fundraising dinner such as Robert's.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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