Crowdfunding is quickly becoming the new shiny object in the world of social change. From Giving Days, to new giving platforms, to lots of articles and studies (here and here to start), it seems that crowdfunding is everywhere lately.
I’m all for innovations in the funding of social change, but I’m not convinced that crowdfunding is really creating anything fundamentally new.
Under “crowdfunding” I include efforts like Kickstarter where a creative effort (a film, art exhibit, library) can garner small investments from a large number of people. And I’m also including Giving Days, at the city and national level, where nonprofits try to raise as much money as possible in a 24-hour online “event”. What these efforts all have in common is they raise money, from a large group of people, over a short period of time.
I earned my fundraising chops working public television pledge drives, one of the earliest “crowdfunding” efforts. The technology was different (TV screens and telephones, instead of CRM systems and social media), but I’m not sure much else is.
So I would like to see us separate what is potentially exciting about crowdfunding from what is just hype. To help in that effort, I offer some questions:
How much is truly new money?
It’s unclear to me how much new money crowdfunding brings to social change organizations. For example, nonprofits participating in Giving Days encourage their annual donors to give on that specific day so that Giving Day dollars are higher. But that’s not new money. True innovation in social change funding comes from efforts to grow the 2% pie - giving as a share of America’s Gross Domestic Product has stayed at 2% for the last 40+ years. I’m not convinced that crowdfunding uncovers money that would not have otherwise ended up somewhere in the nonprofit sector.
How many new donors are being retained?
The point of crowdfunding is that it’s a one time deal. There is a message of urgency that encourages donors to give NOW. So the numbers on a specific Giving Day or with a crowdfunding campaign may be good, but is the funding sustainable? Are nonprofits or social change organizations actually growing their donor base? Are they able to go back to these investors later and encourage them to give again? And if the funding isn’t sustainable, is it really worth the effort it took to get it?
Is crowdfunding reinforcing the “Overhead Myth”?
The destructive idea that donors shouldn’t support nonprofit “overhead“, or administrative costs, is slowly dying, but crowdfunding might just be bringing it back to life. Nonprofit crowdfunding darling charity:water has been taken to task for reinforcing the idea that 100% of the dollars they raise go “directly to the field”. And crowdfunding projects are often specific and “sexy,” which means that the money is not being raised for boring things like the staffing, technology, and infrastructure that most organizations desperately need. Are we perpetuating the overhead myth by encouraging donors to give to specific projects, instead of to overall issues, organizations or teams?
What’s the return on investment?
A lot of time and effort can go into crowdfunding campaigns. If the benefits are shortlived, donors aren’t retained, and the majority of the funding is not new dollars, while the costs (staff and board time, technology investments) are high, then what is the true return on investment? I’m not arguing that it can’t be positive, but I would like to see more critical analysis about it, both at the aggregate and the individual organization levels.
I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I’d like us to dig a bit deeper to understand what the real effects of crowdfunding are so far and what it’s true promise is. If there is already research out there that can answer some of these questions, please let me know in the comments below.
Photo Credit: SeedingFactory.com
Ever since last year’s Letter to the Donors of America from GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance there has been a growing movement to debunk the “nonprofit overhead myth,” the notion that donors should evaluate nonprofits based on the percent they spend on “overhead” (fundraising and administrative) costs.
More and more articles (a most recent one here) are cropping up explaining the overhead myth and highlighting donors who overcame it. And even fundraising journal Advancing Philanthropy is devoting their entire Spring issue to the topic.
But at the same time we have very obvious examples of the continuing strength of the overhead myth. The latest is nonprofit darling Charity:Water, which is often held up as the gold standard of innovative fundraising and nonprofit strategy, claiming that 100% of their donations go “directly to the field.” And thus the overhead myth lives on.
Will we ever be rid of the idea that nonprofits can somehow achieve a nirvana where very little (or no) money goes to boring things like salaries, technology, infrastructure, fundraising, leadership development, planning, R&D?
I wonder if we could gain more traction by talking less about the negatives of an overhead myth and talking more about the positives of nonprofit organization building.
For example, one of the things that is often considered “overhead” and rarely gets funded is nonprofit leadership development. But in the for-profit sector, leadership development is viewed as an incredibly important and worthy investment. According to a recent article by the Foundation Center, the business sector spent $12 billion on leadership development in 2011, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $400 million, or viewed another way, businesses spent $120 per employee on leadership development, whereas the nonprofit sector spent $29 per employee.
And leadership development can have such a positive return on investment. A stronger nonprofit leader can:
- Recruit, train and manage a more productive and effective staff
- Engage a more invested board of directors
- Use money and other limited resources more strategically
- Open a nonprofit to bigger and better networks
- More effectively manage to outcomes
- Create an overall more highly performing nonprofit
So what if we refocused the overhead myth discussion on the power of nonprofit organization building? Beyond leadership development, investing in nonprofit organization building means money for things like: talented, effective fundraising staff; smart long-term planning; performance management systems; effective technology.
At the core, organization building is about creating a smart, strategic nonprofit that can actually realize the outcomes it was set up to achieve. Organization building can make the difference between a nonprofit that is just getting by and a nonprofit that is actually solving problems.
Photo Credit: liquidnight
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