In a 1980 holiday episode of M*A*S*H, the supply truck on its way to the 4077th is waylaid. Everyone in the unit is asked to contribute food from their care packages from home to make a feast for the holiday party for the Korean children in the local orphanage.
Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, the stuffy Bostonian surgeon, gives only a single can of kippers, and his comrades heartily disapprove.
Unbeknownst to them, Winchester gave the orphanage director, Choi Hung So, large chocolate bars for all of the children—on the condition that the gift remain anonymous.
At the holiday party, Winchester becomes enraged when he discovers that none of the children received the chocolate, and he confronts Choi Hung So. His anger gives way to understanding when Mr. So explains, “The candy would’ve brought great joy to the children for a few moments, but, on the black market, it was worth enough rice and cabbage to feed them for a whole month.”
Winchester understands and says, “It is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who has no meal.”
This fictional account in a 35-year-old sitcom is all too reflective of the modern approach of many philanthropists and fundraisers. Choi Hung So accepted the gift completely on Winchester’s terms, applied the gift where it was really needed, and tried to hide this redirection of resources from his donor.
Mr. So did what many fundraisers and executive leaders have been guilty of to some degree at least once. And it happens as a matter of course because our nonprofit financial structures and fundraising guidelines are so out of synch with the realities of meeting community needs that we believe we must do bait-and-switch in order to achieve our outcomes.
Winchester didn’t want to give the children rice and cabbage any more than current donors want to donate to provide overhead or fundraising costs. They want to give to feel-good solutions, projecting their own priorities onto organizations.
In a profession that’s been dominated by donor-centric fundraising (and a Donor Bill of Rights), nonprofit fundraisers and executives have done an excellent job of recognizing, acknowledging, and honoring donor wishes. But we have done a poor job of setting boundaries to ensure that the needs of the community will actually be met.
The pendulum has swung too far, often leading to unmanageably restrictive gifts and excessive donor giving that is not aligned with program implementation. While some will put the blame on donors, I put it squarely back on fundraisers—the first line in ensuring that philanthropic contributions are well-positioned for achieving the highest possible impact.
In the need-centric, or community-centric, fundraising model, social enterprise organizations will stop:
- Accepting contributions and grants with unreasonable terms that do not meet the needs of their beneficiaries or program priorities, including overly restricted gifts that are or may become irrelevant.
- Receiving any gift or grant that does not acknowledge that administrative, capacity building, and fundraising costs are part of the organization’s work in fulfilling its mission.
- Soliciting or accepting gifts whose primary purpose is to make the donor feel good. Contributions must have real impact.
- Lying about the needs in their organization. If an organization needs a new septic system in order to ensure that the early childhood center can continue operating safely, say so!
- Chasing money that is “sort of” in the realm of their mission and programs. This can only end badly for supporters and implementing organizations and is a waste of time.
Major Winchester understood his arrogance when it was pointed out to him. He’s a smart guy, after all. As are all of our donors; these sophisticated philanthropists in our spheres will also appreciate our candor, pushback, and commitment to our causes.
We must not avoid asking for rice and cabbage, if that’s what is needed.