The Idea

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The Idea

It’s time to change the world.

The three ‘T’s of philanthropy: Time, Talent, and Treasure, have made their rounds for the past decade. As the public continues to recover from scandals of a few naughty nonprofiteers over the years, there’s still an uneasiness about giving and contributing to anything that isn’t a direct need – food to feed the homeless one day to the next, books placed in the hands of children, etc. – in other words, charity.

Charity vs. Systemic Change

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, charity in this case refers to day to day and direct services. Charity is the first aid kit. Systemic change – changing the way the system operates so that we won’t need first aid kits – is the cure. Some nonprofits deal in direct services – the charity side of things – and some deal in systemic change, seeking to root out the issue and solve it at its core.

We need both, certainly. We cannot allow people to starve each day while we work on the complex issue of solving hunger. Conversely, we can’t only pour resources into feeding people each day for eternity, never considering ways to end the need entirely.

The Starving Nonprofit

I’ve heard it said we need to make it profitable to make a difference. I don’t believe this means ‘profitable’ in the greedy, fat cat, jet planes sort of manner, that instead, it means feeding instead of starving. Investing in impacts instead of just day to day needs and in low overhead. Motivating talented people to use their skills to solve problems instead of just generate more profit. Using resources to build an infrastructure that will end problems instead of inadvertently perpetuate them. A body cannot perform without nourishment. A body performs even better by investing resources in itself. It becomes more efficient and productive. The same applies to nonprofits.

So how do we do this? We must bring the dialogue on ‘charity vs. systemic change’ to the general public, for one. This nonprofit-world notion is only just beginning to escape our bubble. Second, we must change the conversation. Dan Pallotta got us started, but now we should invest more time in considering practical ways we can put these ideas into practice. It’s one thing to talk about investing more in nonprofit infrastructure, it’s another to determine ways to do that wisely.

Talent, Technology, and Treasure

Time, Talent, and Treasure, remains vital to the day to day work of making a difference, but perhaps there is a family of ‘T’s we can apply to the work of changing the way nonprofits work overall, helping them evolve from starving bodies getting by day to day to healthy bodies with capacity, able to take on and solve issues. We must provide them with and invest in:

  • Talent: In the traditional trio of T’s (Time, Talent, Treasure), this typically refers to giving your skills as a volunteer. This is of course important also, but in this vein I mean something a little different. I mean investing funds and resources in nonprofit’s staff, not being afraid to offer competitive wages to attract top brains. As Dan Pallotta points out, in a world where for-profit CEOs with skills and expertise rake in top dollar, when we’re trying to solve complex social issues, why wouldn’t we be willing to invest in finding and compensating the most qualified, talented people for the job?
  • Technology: I’ve seen just a few grants and resources to bolster nonprofit’s technological capacity here and there, and fear it’s not enough – yet. Some of the top nonprofits I admire – for example, DoSomething – have dedicated technology staff and officers and they are thriving, reaching and impacting not just thousands, but hundreds of thousands or even millions of people as a result. But top technology and staff to support it is a dream for most nonprofits. In 2015, it is hard for me to fathom why any nonprofit would still go without a decent website, or in some cases, go without a website at all. With its capacity to boost a nonprofit’s operations and reach quickly and exponentially, technology is something donors and funders shouldn’t shy away from.
  • Treasure: It is a given that causes will need funding to work to solve the issues they were created to tackle. But how and where it is invested is equally important. We must take care to balance funding charity – meeting peoples’ needs day to day – with funding systemic change, so that one day, peoples’ needs will be met sustainably.

Much of the change required will come from within funders and changes in what they choose to fund. But individual donors can help too. Do your research to understand which nonprofits are making the biggest impact – not necessarily keeping overhead low. Make donations to nonprofits you support and earmark them for things that will provide infrastructure to their cause. Instead of cringing at the idea of putting your dollars towards things like staff, space, or technology, recognize that these things will enable the cause you love to truly thrive and solve problems for the community – and seek out ways to support these needs specifically.

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