How We Think About Charity is Wrong

This is a fantastic TED presentation by Dan Pallotta on why the non-profit industry is perpetually hamstrung by its inability, among other things, to break out of a structure that limits compensation, suppresses risk-taking, prohibits access to capital markets, imposes frugality at the expense of future growth potential and tags all overhead as negative.  It’s a must-watch for anyone in the non-profit sector, but the charitable arm of the non-profit sector in particular.

Here’s a link to the full transcript and a couple of excerpts that really hit home:

So in the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we don’t like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service. We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself…

Businessweek did a survey, looked at the compensation packages for MBAs 10 years of business school, and the median compensation for a Stanford MBA, with bonus, at the age of 38, was 400,000 dollars. Meanwhile, for the same year, the average salary for the CEO of a $5 million-plus medical charity in the U.S. was 232,000 dollars, and for a hunger charity, 84,000 dollars. Now, there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.

Some people say, “Well, that’s just because those MBA types are greedy.” Not necessarily. They might be smart. It’s cheaper for that person to donate 100,000 dollars every year to the hunger charity, save 50,000 dollars on their taxes, so still be roughly 270,000 dollars a year ahead of the game, now be called a philanthropist because they donated 100,000 dollars to charity, probably sit on the board of the hunger charity, indeed, probably supervise the poor SOB who decided to become the CEO of the hunger charity,and have a lifetime of this kind of power and influence and popular praise still ahead of them…

So we’ve all been taught that charities should spend as little as possible on overhead things like fundraising under the theory that, well, the less money you spend on fundraising, the more money there is available for the cause. Well, that’s true if it’s a depressing world in which this pie cannot be made any bigger. But if it’s a logical world in which investment in fundraising actually raises more funds and makes the pie bigger, then we have it precisely backwards, and we should be investing more money, not less, in fundraising, because fundraising is the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of moneyavailable for the cause that we care about so deeply…

This is what happens when we confuse morality with frugality. We’ve all been taught that the bake sale with five percent overhead is morally superior to the professional fundraising enterprise with 40 percent overhead, but we’re missing the most important piece of information, which is, what is the actual size of these pies? Who cares if the bake sale only has five percent overhead if it’s tiny? What if the bake sale only netted 71 dollars for charity because it made no investment in its scale and the professional fundraising enterprise netted 71 million dollars because it did? Now which pie would we prefer, and which pie do we think people who are hungry would prefer?


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