I have to be honest. I am so sick of hearing about the ice bucket challenge that I am loathe to write about it. But I wonder if many in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are falling victim, yet again, to shiny object syndrome, so I feel compelled to say something.
To me the ice bucket challenge is yet another example of what happens so often in the world of fundraising. Nonprofit board members and staff hate fundraising, so they desperately search for a magic bullet to make it all go away.
Sometimes that magic bullet is “an endowment,” sometimes its “earned income,” more recently it has been “crowdfunding.” This month it’s a form of crowdfunding taken to the extreme, the ice bucket challenge. Some have been so swept up in the hype that they have gone as far to say that the challenge is “rewriting the charity model.”
The reality is that if you want to create social change you need to develop a sustainable financial model that aligns with your long-term goals. It’s not sexy, it’s not easy, and I’m probably one of the few people on this planet who thinks it’s fun. But there it is.
While many nonprofits are scrambling to figure out how to create their own ice bucket challenge, and some thought leaders are offering tips along the way, maybe we should all just take a step back.
Let’s be very clear. ALS’s close to $100 million windfall is not a revenue stream. It is a one-time infusion of money. Yes, ALS may try to replicate the ice bucket challenge on a regular basis, but the stars will never align in quite the same way, people will move on to the next shiny object, and the money will eventually fade.
Because this pile of money is not a revenue stream, ALS can’t and shouldn’t add long-term staffing or programming because the money won’t be there next year. At the same time, they probably can’t create an endowment because the donors’ intent was not for the money to sit in a bank account. Regranting the money is also tricky, again because donor intent was for it to go specifically to ALS. In all of this ALS will be under the microscope, because as Ken Berger of CharityNavigator cautioned, a year from now everyone will be asking where the money went.
One of the few paths that I see for ALS is to treat the money like capacity capital. This could be an opportunity to invest some of the windfall in building a stronger organization by investing in technology, infrastructure, and systems. And they could do the same for their affiliates. They could require capacity building plans and budgets and invest in those plans accordingly. They could, in essence, create a $100 million capacity capital investment fund for the ALS system.
But the point is that far from being a great thing that all nonprofits should strive to emulate, the ice bucket challenge creates a complex and potentially damaging problem.
So instead of spending board and staff time trying to dream up the next ice bucket challenge, please, please, please spend that time and those resources building your financial model, by creating a long-term financial strategy, raising capacity capital to build your revenue-generating function, developing a compelling strategic plan in which people will want to invest, and growing and educating your board.
These are the ingredients for a robust, sustainable financial model. Not a bucket of water, a video camera, and a social media stream.
Photo Credit: StoiKNA