There … we've said it.

We're reacting to a bunch of things …

  • A recent article in the New York Times, “Write a Check? The New Philanthropist Goes Further,” which opens:

Many wealthy Americans are no longer content to bequeath their money to favorite causes in their wills. Instead, they are creating a strategic plan for charitable gifts, to be carried out in their lifetime.

  • Donor activists like those at the blog GiveWell, where, with all the transparency and accountability afforded by remaining anonymous(!), donors evaluate and rate their charity prospects.
  • Donor advocates like Jeff Brooks at the Donor Power Blog (a blog we greatly admire), who admonishes us that the show belongs to the donors, not the causes or charities.

Hey Jeff, we like donors, honor them too.

But enough already. We respectfully disagree that the world's problems will be solved more readily if only donors are more empowered.

The best contribution many — arguably most — donors can make is to just write the check already (or tick the online donation box)!

Where's the evidence that donors as a class are smarter, more strategic, better informed, more persistent, more attentive, more inspired, more dedicated, more creative or more experienced than the poor blokes begging for their money?

Some might be. By the same token, anyone who's been around awhile has seen both major donors and big foundations make compliant grantees do foolish things. And how much due diligence goes into the typical $25 check to bring about world peace?

We say, give donors tons of respect. They don't have to give anyone a dime. But out of concern, moral commitment, guilt, fear, aspiration, ego gratification, whatever … they do.

What the recipients of their generosity owe them is gratitude, truthfulness and the best possible stewardship of their gift. As much information about the cause, its strategies and progress, and its financial integrity as the donor cares to absorb. And opportunities for further participation in ways that truly advance the cause (as opposed to make-work).

Beyond that, things can start to get unbalanced fast. Giving respect, and a voice, to donors doesn't mean that nonprofit leaders should abdicate leadership.

The smartest donors we've been around place their bet, their confidence, on smart nonprofit leaders and their visions and capabilities … and then let them get on with the job. Which isn't to say that these donors passively ignore performance and results … far from it.

The cause is (and should be) bigger, more enduring, than any donor. The cause comes first, not the donor. Cause organizations exist to advance agendas, not service donors. If that premise is reversed by over-attention and concern for the whimsy and caprice of “the donor” then the mission of the organization is likely lost.

Donors, informed or otherwise, can pick and choose amongst a myriad of causes and agendas and strategies. Some strategies will naturally offer a more robust role to donors as participants; others less so. Donors embrace the strategy (or move on); with rare exception, the strategy isn't molded to the donor.

To whom or what, then, is the “cause” and its leadership accountable? Because the real issue is accountability, not servitude.

With an open-ended series of posts under the headline, Measuring Up, The Agitator plans to explore the thorny issue of nonprofit accountability in depth in the weeks to come. We hope to engage and provoke you in the process.

Stay tuned for Measuring Up.

Roger and Tom

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