Surpassing the limits of charity

Limits - sEarning permission to invest in ourselves…

As Ian MacQuillin pointed out earlier this week in an article for Third Sector, the exit of Virgin Money Giving from the fundraising platform space is not just a short-term problem for fundraisers, it’s a prime example of one of the most profound long-term challenges the charity sector faces.

It’s the same issue that I and others have written about before, probably none more passionately than Dan Pallotta in his 2008 book, Uncharitable.

The issue is the expectation donors have that every penny they give should go straight to the front line. An expectation that’s sharpened by the saviour narrative of our own campaigns, that underpins and is reinforced by every tabloid exposé on CEO pay, and which provided the ammunition for Virgin’s own attack, less than a year ago, on its main platform rival for taking commissions on donations.

It is this same expectation, and the way charities accept and internalise it, that fundamentally limits the sector’s ability to invest in talent and technology, in skills and scale, in the capacity and capabilities that could transform our ability to make the impact we seek.

It is a hollow irony therefore, that the reason Virgin has given for pulling out of the crowdfunding market is its inability to invest in its own development. Really. I mean, who would have thought?

Hence the calls by people like Dan, Ian, me, and countless others, for us to work together to shift the narrative, to change the public, the media, and our own ingrained perspectives around this profoundly self-limiting belief.

Changing that perception will not be easy. It has deep cultural roots, not least in the pervasive belief that altruism and self-interest can never coexist. Doing well out of working in business is morally right. Doing well out of working in charity is morally wrong because, as we are conditioned to believe, virtue cannot exist without sacrifice; one can either be good or wealthy, not both.

Thus, it may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it will be to deconstruct the self-interest narrative. But make no mistake, it’s something we must all start doing – educating donors and funders, connecting with the enlightened, demonstrating the value of investing in our people and our organisations.

However, while we are trying to create the world as it should be, we also have to operate in the world as it is. But there’s one place the world is already like that. One place this issue doesn’t exist, even today.

Earned income. Social enterprise. Mission-led business. There is a broad and fertile valley between the opposing mountain ranges of selfless charitable altruism and naked commercial self-interest.

And it is in this valley that popular opinion is remarkably comfortable with reconciling the two beliefs: that we are all entitled to make a good living, and that we can all contribute to making the world a better place.

In the space of social business there is no conflict, no trade off, there is simply a synergy between making money and making a difference – the more we can invest in one, the more we can create of the other.

So yes, we need to shift the narrative, just as we need to change the world, but even with the world as it is right now, there are commercial opportunities all around that could enable you to invest in everything you need, to build your capacity to change that world for good.

And to close by example, my book, which walks you through that entire valley of commercial opportunity, was written with the sole aim of helping charities be more successful and, by proxy, to make the world a better place. My self-interest, the last time I looked, was about £2 per copy.

I’d challenge anyone to see the hypocrisy in my blowing an entire week’s royalties on a couple of pints of a Friday evening. Because, I suspect like you, I’ve earned them.

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