The Giving Pledge Isn’t the Biggest Philanthropy Event of 2010

Unsung nonprofits are the big story
by Todd Cohen

It must be official: The “biggest event in philanthropy this year” was the pledge by 40 of the wealthiest Americans to donate at least half their wealth to charity, according to The New York Times in the annual report on giving it published last week.

The so-called “giving pledge” by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett is indeed important: In addition to generating a lot of media coverage, or maybe because of that coverage, the pledge holds the promise of inspiring other Americans to give, whether they are wealthy or not.

But do not let the Times’ declaration that the giving pledge was the year’s main charitable event mislead you: Like the rest of the mainstream media, the Times pays attention to the charitable world mainly when people who are rich and famous make big gifts, or when big charities or charity leaders make big mistakes.

In the trenches of the charitable world, the giving pledge pales in comparison to the heroic work that nonprofits perform every day in the face of an economic crisis that has escalated demand for services and pushed many nonprofits to the brink of extinction.

Also dwarfing the giving pledge is the innate and abiding generosity of Americans, from all backgrounds and walks of life.

Despite the dismal economy and uncertain future, Americans give their money, time and know-how to help people and places in need.

The ultra-wealthy people making the giving pledge typically donate their money to their own foundations and often support big educational or cultural institutions, or global causes.

Yet most of the more than one million nonprofits in the U.S. are small and struggling, and they likely will never see a dime from the pledges of the super-rich.

The mainstream media apparently cannot see it, but the biggest news by far this year about the charitable world has been its resilience, perseverance, dedication and innovation.

Against overwhelming challenges that have eroded their resources and strained their employees and volunteers, nonprofits are striving to keep on keeping on by adapting to rapid changes in the marketplace and distilling from their often patched-together operations the most effective ways of doing business.

An equally significant “event” in the charitable world, although it can seem like old news because it never seems to change, is the blindness of philanthropy’s power brokers to the reality of the day-to-day struggle of most nonprofits.

Those power brokers – big donors, foundations and corporate-giving programs, as well as nonprofit trade groups and consultants – are quick to push their in-bred and rigid ideas about “best practices,” “evaluation,” “innovation,” “diversity” and “collaboration” on nonprofits, while failing, of course, to practice the very doctrines they preach.

Those all are important approaches nonprofits can take to do a better job, but the power brokers have a tough time seeing the need for flexibility in those approaches, as well as the need for nonprofits to voluntarily decide what is best for them rather than have their solutions dictated by big funders and other “experts.”

Those power brokers also seem to have seduced the Obama administration into believing the biggest challenges and opportunities for nonprofits consist of hip, innovative strategies that focus on social enterprise and social media.

In short, the deciders who inhabit the lofty heights of the philanthropic world are clueless about what is happening on the ground.

Most nonprofits are community-based groups that are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.

The economy has hammered these organizations, which are struggling to adjust their business model and strengthen their leadership, fundraising, communications and technology.

They need support to help them build their capacity to address urgent needs in their communities, and to survive and thrive as organizations.

The reality of the charitable marketplace is that change can be messy and frightening for nonprofits, a reality that does not fit neatly into the pre-packaged ideas and insulated comfort zone of many well-heeled funders, trade groups and consultants.

Never mind what big media say: The biggest story in the charitable world is the quiet and courageous work of small nonprofits and their supporters to heal and repair our communities.

Reprinted with permission of Philanthropy Journal.