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Four philanthropy myths that need busting

Former Executive Vice President, Business Development

As development professionals, we come across many misconceptions about our profession and the nonprofit sector that dilute the power of philanthropy.

By casting fundraisers in a negative light, myths prevent giving and deter qualified people from joining our industry as professional fundraisers—even though employment of fundraisers is estimated to grow 9 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Here are the four most frequently encountered and problematic myths with our profession:

1. Philanthropy Is a Transaction

The problem with this myth: People are “liking” instead of giving and investing their time.

Volunteering for an hour or buying a box of Thin Mints from a Girl Scout are good deeds or charity, but not philanthropy.

Philanthropy is more of a big-picture concept—a movement, a commitment to the greater good and an active effort to promote human welfare.

A study out of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business found that the more visible the support to an organization, the less the supporter actually gave.

Is what this study calls “slacktivism” getting in the way? “Slacktivism” is the willingness to perform relatively costless, token displays of support for a cause accompanied by unwillingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change.

For example, you can give money to a homeless man on the subway, or you can give to an organization dedicated to eradicating homelessness. You can like an organization’s Facebook page, or you can invest in its programs and become an ambassador for its mission.

2. Fundraisers Are Thieves

The problem with this myth: Talented professionals are less likely to become fundraisers.

Describing one’s career as a fundraiser is often met with a joke about hiding wallets—which both minimizes the importance of our work and reinforces the stigma surrounding the development profession.

Penelope Burke’s book “Donor-Centered Leadership” tackles the mega issue of staff attrition in development. Her research found that, while salaries play a role, the high turnover rate is due in part to a lack of respect for fundraisers as individuals and for the profession as a whole.

This myth must go if we are to attract and retain talented development professionals.

3. The Less Overhead, the Better the Nonprofit

The problem with this myth: Donors focus on the wrong factors, while infrastructure and capacity are compromised.

There’s a clear tie between this myth and the high rate of staff turnover cited above. Fundraisers are not being fairly compensated due to the hyperfocus on overhead, and the perception that overhead inversely affects impact. But praising nonprofits for lean overhead numbers sends the wrong message to donors, nonprofit leaders and others: That running a lean operation is all that matters.

The “Nonprofit Overhead Cost Project” points out that we are getting what we pay for. As the obsession with decreased overhead continues, impact declines and organizational effectiveness is compromised due to a lack of adequate infrastructure.

In Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk, he reinforces the point that nonprofits are rewarded for how little they spend rather than what they get done. Dan boldly challenges us to bust that myth—to change the way we think about changing the world.

4. Nonprofit Professionals Shouldn’t Be Paid Like Other Professionals

The problem with this myth: Talented professionals avoid the sector and turnover issues persist.

We equate a corporate CEO’s mansion with success, but consider a nonprofit executive’s luxury car unfair compensation. Why?

Fundraising was once the work of volunteers. But the 30,000 members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals raise more than $100 billion annually, approximately one third of all charitable giving in North America. This reminds us just how far the development profession has come.

In addition to viewing fundraisers as glorified volunteers, a misconception persists that individuals land in the nonprofit sector because they couldn’t make it in the corporate arena or because they derive job satisfaction solely from making a difference.

High-caliber talent is critical in the nonprofit sector. Competing with the corporate sector requires offering more than a warm and fuzzy feeling as compensation. This is not your grandmother’s nonprofit world. Our leaders are here by choice, not because they could not hack it in a corporate job. The tens of thousands of educated and talented men and women who chose this career are educated, passionate and valued professionals who fully deserve competitive salaries and benefits.

It’s our responsibility to bust these four myths and knock down the obstacles they create. Philanthropy is a powerful force in our society and when people “get it,” they give—generously and strategically. The job of development professionals must include teaching others about the value of philanthropy and that the work we do changes the world for the better.

Allison White is Vice President at Graham-Pelton and can be reached at awhite@grahampelton.com or by calling 1.800.608.7955. This article was originally featured in NonProfit PRO.