It’s time to re-think charity…for the good of us all.

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When I first watched Dan Pallotta’s TED talk, I wound up yelling back at my computer screen: “That’s IT! That’s what I’ve been trying to say!”

Of course Pallotta, the founder of the AIDS Ride, said it far better than I could. His talk, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”, lit a fire under me and many of my colleagues in the public benefit sector. He discusses why salary ranges are all wrong, why marketing and advertising is undervalued, and why the mission and potential of a charity (like the VMC Foundation) is more important than that of a video game company…yet the double-standard of for-profit vs. non-profit keeps societal problems from getting solved.

He also points out something getting new traction: The amount a charity spends on “overhead” – meaning fundraising and administration – is a poor measure of their worthiness. Now, a letter written by the leaders of three leading charity watchdogs called The Overhead Myth, is making the case in a loud and clear voice.

I would add to this conversation that another area where charities under-participate is in issue advocacy. Many nonprofits believe they are not allowed to get involved in politics, and in some cases that’s true. But in others, like the county Measure A campaign in 2008, the VMC Foundation was the largest donor. Why? Because a victory would mean a new hospital building and seismic compliance for Valley Medical Center. Seriously – how could we NOT have been involved? It was the very definition of “go big or go home” for us. By the way, we won, and the Sobrato Pavilion opens next year as perhaps the finest public hospital building in the nation.

So we learned a lot in 2008, and we applied it again last year in another “Measure A” campaign. This time, the $400,000,000 generated over the next decade will support county services that include fully funding the Children’s Health Initiative—ensuring that every child in our county has health coverage. This is not just good, but GREAT for Valley Medical Center…and more importantly, for our young patients.

Is issue advocacy a risk? You bet it is. We failed in 2010 with a similar ballot measure, and I wish we had that money back! But the private sector risks all the time, and frankly, Silicon Valley rewards aiming high and failing when it’s followed up by trying again. The public benefit sector has too much expertise and mission alignment to be sidelined when issues like hunger, homelessness and health become the subjects of political decisions.

Charities need to be bold, take calculated risks, and be measured not by the smallness of their spending but by the largeness of their dreams.

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