The Business of Philanthropy

Regardless of each person’s views on the subject of helping less fortunate people do better, it has been found to be as sensitive a subject as how babies look. The fact is, not every new born is found to be as beautiful and deserving of the adoring “ooooh” that ensues from seeing the baby for the first time. Whether we mean it or not, we react as society expects us to when presented with a new born tot. “what a beautiful baby!” we will exclaim as proudly as the onlooking parent, and we will acknowledge every yawn, smile and grimace with an appropriate “oooooh!”

As with our views on babies, our truthful perceptions of philanthropy or charity tend to be nicely hidden and locked up. Indeed like with babies, those who truly support the notion of philanthropy or charity will tend to engage in activities that help other people more and advocate such activities voraciously.

On the other hand, like with babies, those who honestly do not see the big deal with the new arrivals (and perhaps have a less than positive review of the looks of the bundle of joy) will keep their views well hidden and make all the appropriate noises.

Rarely will someone object out loud to the notion of charity or philanthropy (yes, there is a difference – and no, not just in spelling!) because the tendency of their audience is to judge them to be miserly and no one wants to be viewed thus.

The relevance of this candid analogy is this: those of us who work in the “do good” industry and who as a result have to fundraise to continue helping others must accept that despite the noises everyone will make, not everyone agrees or cares and therefore the “do-good” arguments that we design and talk about almost always are met with nice noises but little action. Often, getting one person to give out of the sheer goodness of their hearts is akin to pulling wisdom teeth.

The reason for the reticence in giving is simple. Life is hard. People work hard for their money and they are increasingly aware of the fact that tge cost of living going up considerably with time and the opportunities for making more money is getting slimmer. In addition, as African governments make more investments in basic structural investments such as roads, water, energy, health and education, the tax burden is becoming heavier by the initiative. Add onto that, the detail that with increasing income comes social pressure to live in certain ways, which makes it hard for people to give what little disposible income they have.

Disposable income. Let’s delve into this concept a bit. After taking care of their basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, transportation) and their basic social needs (health, education, extended families – this is Africa), some money is left over to cover the social-pressures driven lifestyle – entertainment, comforts, investments, etc. This last part, the disposible income part is where philanthropy is found – at the bottom of the list.

With the little few thousand shillings that are left over if one is lucky, one could buy many things – beer, magazines, holiday, gifts, new cloths, shoes; pay for things – events, dates, manicures and hairdos or even invest it in a secure future – and yes, give.

The reality on the ground (what does this phrase even mean) is that charity and philanthropy as concepts are fighting for as large a share as possible of the same Wallet that beer, airtime, salons, that extra suit, a new carpet for the dining room, a new stereo system for the car, etcetera etcetera are aiming for.

More over, the share of that wallet that COULD go to giving is then being fought for by as many charities and causes as the imagination could fathom – children, hunger, obesity, youth, teenagers, drug abuse, environment, music, parks, wild animals, domestic animals, old people, education, hope, religion – the list could go on for decades.

It is basic human psychology that we will deal with emergencies and urgent situations before dealing with long term problems. It’s the principle of prioritisation. For organisations that are fundraising for endowments, the challenge is greatest. “keep money aside? While people die? Do you know that there are girls without sanitary towels today, children without an education?” It is hard to make an argument for an endowment in that context. Yes, an argument that we need to keep some money aside for helping people in future can be heard given time – but let’s face it: it goes against every fibre of our ‘superhero’, fairytale inclinations. It is far more compelling to resolve an issue TODAY. “we need to keep money aside to support the needy in future” is too uncomfortable an admission – that we can not achieve the ideals that we aspire to – eradicate poverty and disease, achieve equality and prosperity, no man, woman or child left behind, world peace, happily ever after…

So therefore given such a bleak analysis, and given that we must fundraise, what then do we do?

The following is my view of the pragmatic course of action for philanthropic organisations in particular is as follows. Charities have an easier time pulling at heart strings with heart-rending sob stories so from this point on, we will ignore them.

#1: Understand and appreciate our competition

Based on the analysis above, our competition is far wider and more impactful on us than we traditionally recognize.

In the 1990s, Coca-cola, the world’s largest beverage maker realized that when one is thirsty, one has a huge array of drinks that one could take – water, juice, coffee, tea and a host of other beverages packaged into literally thousands of brands. Their approach to marketing changed on that basis.

For us, the time to correctly understand our market dynamics has come.

#2: For every initiative, offer TANGIBLE value

People prioritise themselves before they figure out others. Our fundraising strategy must Capitalise on peoples’ self interest. In a way they can touch, feel and experience.

In essence therefore, we must Create opportunities for people to gain materially or with fame, stature and prestige. The doing good must be allowed to be what it is in their minds – a bonus (it will over time grow in culture)

#3: Get aggressive

We do good but no more Mr. Nice guy. Our competition is working hard, finding interesting and unique ways to reach the minds of the wallet-owner and stay at the top of their minds. We too must invest on ingenious ways to reach our audience and stay on their minds. We must create the avenues for them to engage us on their terms (this is important because people will not change to suit our needs. If they change it will be because they are compelled by their own perceptions).

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