I returned home yesterday from the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference in my usual state: Head and heart full, exhausted but invigorated.
This year's conference sparked a number of thoughts that I'll tackle in the coming weeks, but top of mind is the idea that I shared at my session yesterday: That despite all of our innovation, invention, energy, talent, and passion, the amount of charitable giving as a percentage of overall GDP has remained flat at 2% for the last forty years. I call this percentage our "share of heart."
On the face this data point seems rather mundane but it is quite striking -- and sobering -- when you stop and think about it. What this tells you is that charitable giving is essentially a function of economic growth. In good times, people give more; in bad times, people give less. This total overall giving is irrespective of the level of need, or the number of nonprofits, or the messages we send, or the hard work you do, or anything really. While certain nonprofits may surge ahead or fall behind, the most important factor to overall generosity does not seem to be generosity at all. It is the inscrutably complex black box called the economy.
The public has a heart, for certain, but only a small share of it goes to the nonprofit space. And over forty years we haven't increased our share of heart at all. As the number of nonprofits grows, the only thing that keeps nonprofits from directly stealing or losing share from one another is economic growth -- growth that, as we've seen over the last five years, might hard to predict, or worse yet, small, or worse still, actually negative.
To truly realize transformative change we need to come to grips with this mathematical reality and have a hard conversation about why our share of heart has stayed constant. Perhaps we need better salaries, relaxed overhead restrictions, and more advocacy, and all of those might help. But my sense is there's something deeper going on here. Either the general public is hard-hearted and there isn't much share of heart to be had; or what we do isn't perceived as the most effective way to effect social change. Since I do not believe the public's sympathies are tapped out, for my part I've concluded that the impact we're making just isn't compelling enough to elicit more donations.
And that conclusion led me to my other 2013 NTC sound bite: The fundraising silver bullet is impact. The best fundraising strategy is not to persuade people that we could make a difference. We have to actually show people that we are making a difference. A longer road, to be sure.
More to come.