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The Fundraising Event Debate Rages On

By Nell Edgington

512px-Carter_and_Ford_in_a_debate,_September_23,_1976Predictably, my post last week arguing that nonprofit events aren’t efficient fundraisers caused some controversy. In particular, fundraising consultant, Gayle Gifford and I had an interesting (and very polite) debate about the post.

The exchange with Gayle really made me think and further refine my argument (which is really the point of debate, right?). What our exchange made me realize is that my issue with nonprofit fundraising events goes far beyond my belief that they are inefficient fundraisers.

Rather, my distaste for events stems from the fact that they often perpetuate the charity mindset, a destructive approach that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. The world is changing rapidly and the “charity” model doesn’t work anymore. And in fact, that model holds nonprofits back from becoming more efficient, more sustainable social change machines.

In our debate, Gayle and I discussed how events are merely a symptom of larger changes happening in the economy. As I wrote, nonprofit events are part of a:

“dying mentality that “charity” lives beside,…instead of fully integrated into, the economy. I believe that we are moving to a place where the work of social change (historically the work of “charity”) is fully integrated into the rest of the economy…the work of social change is just as important as the work of making widgets or the work of building roads and everyone understands that in order for all of it to work well, we need to finance it effectively.”

And Gayle argued that what I am describing would be a significant change to the world as we know it:

“I too long for/ and am working for the day when social justice is integrated into our economy as well as our philanthropic life… though that’s going to take some pretty massive restructuring of an economy based on unlimited resource extraction and consumption. But I still hold out that hope.”

But, as I responded, I think that kind of massive restructuring is already well underway:

I agree with you that fully integrating social change into our economy is not going to be quick or easy, but the truth is that it is already happening. There is a real convergence of the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors and the result is that social change is now rather ubiquitous. At the same time, technology and the ways in which we communicate are changing rapidly as well. Add to that a Millennial generation that bakes social change into everything they do, and I think you start to see the beginnings of the “pretty massive restructuring” you and I are talking about. Nonprofits need to do the analysis and abandon activities that just aren’t effective. And then they need to look to some of these structural changes we are witnessing to find more efficient ways to create a sustainable financial model for their social change work.

In my mind, nonprofit fundraising events are anathema because they are symptom of a larger, ineffective way of thinking about nonprofits and the work of social change. Fundraising events are typically run as an aside, a tangential activity that sucks time and money out of a nonprofit and begs otherwise uninterested participants to pay the price of admission. These events keep charity squarely separate from the “real” work of the world.

And I truly believe we have moved past that. There are just too many social challenges to think that benevolent, reciprocity-based “charity” will work anymore. Social change must be bigger, more effective, and more efficiently financed.

When we stop thinking of the work of social change as “charity” supported in part by inefficient, occasional parties, we start creating real investment, real attention, and real change.

Photo Credit: Gerald Ford Library



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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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8 Comments to The Fundraising Event Debate Rages On

Krystyn Tully
September 21, 2015

I couldn’t help myself 🙂 I wrote a full blog post response here:

I’m hoping that, by writing bluntly, we can further this important conversation. Thank you for getting it started.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE
September 22, 2015

Sorry for the delay in responding. This post stirred up many, many thoughts for me that I wanted to share when I could write meaningfully.

My dear late friend and community philanthropist Herb Kaplan shared with me the concept of Tzedakah – which I believe is what you are describing. Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for what could be called acts of charity. But the root of Tzedakah is righteousness (as in the right thing to do), justice, or fairness. This thread of philanthropy, which owes its root to the love of humankind, has always been personally powerful in my life. For me it has meant not just financial investment in social justice or systems change work, but also personal investment in the work that I do, the type of volunteering I’ve chosen, and the way I try to live my life.

But I don’t see every act of philanthropy on my part (or others) as needing to be about systems change. I have great admiration for those givers and volunteers who choose to serve through charity — because of them, those who are hungry get fed, those without homes get housed, refugees resettled, those without medical care receive it — because they don’t have time to wait for those big systems changes to come about.

And then there is giving that is just about wanting to see and experience joy and beauty in this world. Some of that might border on social justice, but a lot of it is just desiring a fulfilled life that includes music, visual art, dance, theatre, history, etc etc.

And then there is just plan old having fun. Acts of giving in which you get to have fun — and fun with other people. And that takes me back to events. Lots of folks like the experience of a 5K race, or a 200 mile bicycle ride, or yes, even a gala, where they can dress up, mingle with friends, meet new folks, enjoy good food, and maybe dance too. And I’m quite okay with that.

There is space and need for all types of giving.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE
September 22, 2015

And one more…
I was listening to public radio show yesterday about the 6th extinction now underway.

I could be as sure as you are that the massive restructuring is underway. I was so sure we were heading that way in the early 70s. My son keeps assuring me that that the moral arc is still bending toward justice.

So I take solace in something Cornel West said in a recent interview: “Hope is not simply something that you have; hope is something that you are.”

Because it is the right thing to do.

Nell Edgington
September 22, 2015


First let me say that I have thoroughly enjoyed this exchange with you. It’s really made me think, and it sounds like it has you as well. I really appreciate you taking the time to think through these issues and make such reasoned arguments.

Although I had not heard of it before, I love the concept of Tzedakah and absolutely agree with you that it is a very necessary element of philanthropy. There absolutely are right things to do: taking care of a neighbor, participating in your community, being fair. In essence these are the things that I try to teach my children, not how to make the most impactful investment in a social solution. And while we work for systems change (an end to homelessness, or an education system that actually prepares all of our children for the future) there are very real needs in our communities that must be met, and often this is through acts of charity large and small, like donating clothing to a neighbor who lost everything in a fire. And I also agree that there are times, many times, when it is so important (and fun) to come together as a community, to see our friends and neighbors, to celebrate our community and to feel good about the work we do. So I absolutely agree with you that we need multiple kinds of giving back.

But where I think we go awry is when we confuse the two. Sometimes “charity” can actually be a negative approach and can hold nonprofit leaders back, particularly when they are made to feel that their work is sidelined or not as important as the real work of the world. And when a nonprofit leader is working towards systems change, they need real, significant investment in order to develop strong and sustainable solutions. A charity approach in that scenario will only hold them, and the solutions they offer, back. I think for too long most of the work of the nonprofit sector has by default been put into the charity camp. I talk more about this here:

I wrote the post about nonprofit events and I talk about it when I speak around the country because I don’t want nonprofit leaders to simply assume that events are the right way to finance their work. I want them to do the analysis and make conscious decisions about the right way forward, whatever that may be.

Nell Edgington
September 22, 2015

What a beautiful Cornel West quote, Gayle. I love it!

Nell Edgington
September 22, 2015

Thanks Krystyn. I just responded to your post on your site.

Gayle L. Gifford
September 22, 2015

Just one last thought… we do already have an investment mechanism for financing social change. We’ve used it to build public water systems, sewer systems, transportation networks, retirement programs, education programs, clean up pollution, scientific discovery, space exploration, etc. etc.

It is called taxes. We’ve just lost the political will to use this sufficiently.

Nell Edgington
September 22, 2015

Agreed, and that’s part of the massive restructuring you and I were talking about. Such a greater burden is being placed on the nonprofit sector these days, which is even more reason they need to be more effectively financed.

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