Four Charity Game Changers

In 2012 I founded World Child Cancer USA, a charity dedicated to improving the diagnosis, treatment and care for children with cancer in the developing world. I spent the next two and a half years as the chairman, president and CEO. As I transition the charity to its next leader, I feel compelled to share four critical things I learned along the way. Effectively applying this knowledge will transform your charity, making it more successful and sustainable to better serve your cause.

Together Is Better

The biggest surprise and disappointment I experienced entering the cancer charity space remains the cutthroat competition for fundraising money. How could two organizations dedicated to saving the lives of children be in competition?

I came to learn that raising money is about raising money. If you fundraise in someone else’s backyard for the same cause, it will impact their efforts to raise additional money and they won’t be happy. The bigger your fundraising efforts are, the larger the grants you can compete for.

Instead, charities should ask how their efforts can come together for the good of the cause – how they can leverage each other to deliver even greater results. There should be no competition when it comes to helping others.

One of the first questions my new chairman asked was: “What other existing charities can we bring under our umbrella to help better serve our cause?”

There is power in working together, especially when it comes to charity work.

Charities Have Customers

Whether someone is buying clothing or making a donation to a charity, they behave as a customer. In exchange for money the customer can enjoy a new outfit or help their favorite cause. As customers they need to be valued, engaged and appreciated.

It is amazing to me how many charities miss this point.

A couple years ago I called charities on behalf of a large corporation looking to make a charitable donation. One of my conversations went like this:

ME: “Hello, I am interested in speaking to someone about making a corporate donation.”

CHARITY: “The person you need to speak to is not available, but I can give you her email address.”

I was not offered a time when the person would be available nor did the charity take my contact details to return my call. I was shocked.

When I emailed the woman, she took a week to reply because she was travelling. By then it was too late; my company selected a different charity.

In commercial business, it is foolish to treat a customer offering you their money this way. In the charity world, it is just as foolish. Every call received is a potential donation.

Raising money is hard enough. The last thing you want to do is let donations slip through your fingers. Act like a business. Treat your donors as valued customers.

Charity Work Takes Time

In addition to overseeing, or in the case of a small charity, managing the day-to-day operations of the charity, board members must set aside time to create and develop relationships and networks. The charity requires these to raise money from donors. The charity must also identify and apply for grants – another time intensive process. Finally, board members must get creative about fundraising campaigns to bring in unrestricted donations – funds that can be spent on sustaining and expanding the charity’s operations, outreach, projects and research at its discretion. A great recent example being the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge raising $115 million in donations.

Considering time commitment and fundraising challenges, who are the best board members for your charity? Retired individuals who enjoyed successful careers make good ones, as do those with family money who believe in your cause.

Putting together a well-rounded board is also important and beneficial. Former business leaders grant a business perspective to managing the organization and creating well structured short and long-term business plans. Involving community socialites forms a networking capability to expand your reach. And, engaging board members that bring successful fundraising experience and knowledge of charity governance is critical.

Building a charity is a time consuming proposition. In a perfect world you want a board which can devote as much of their time as possible.

I am not saying board members with busy, full-time jobs can’t add a tremendous amount of value – they can. My board has been a perfect example. However, with careers absorbing our attention, time became a barrier to doing more. Also, tapping into an active career network for donations can be problematic.

Charities Need More Than Money

As charities fight to bring in funds to support their cause, they must not forget the larger picture of social change.

In Jeremy Heimans’ TEDxTeen video Aim Higher Than President, he describes something he calls “movement entrepreneurship” – digitally savvy outsiders who create new sources of power by aggregating and mobilizing the voices of many.

Heiman declares that starting a social movement requires three key elements:

1. Using institutional power and not becoming institutionalized – staying nimble with the ability to say no

2. Building a movement that is bigger than any one person

3. Creating a long-term strategy, not one viral YouTube video

It is too easy to fall into the trap of spending all your time chasing money. Instead, if you effectively create social change, the money and resources will follow.

American Express’ Open Forum article, Why You Should Run Your Charity Like A Business sums it up: “Instead of simply throwing money at the problem, philanthropists should think like entrepreneurs and consider social challenges to be an opportunity to create large enterprises.”


Published on Huffington Post, 16th October 2014

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.