Three Years of Sympathy

Charities and non-profits are almost exclusively born out of love.

Triggered by a trauma or personal experience, we are motivated to create something beautiful: a group…an organisation…driven by passion to change the world. Or a small part of it.

This is why the charity sector, its staff and its volunteers are viewed as inherently good. It’s why the sector’s fundraising has an advantage over the private sector’s sales. It’s why the public are willing to give to something so intangible and invisible.

And it’s why we struggle.

A start-up company in the private sector will research their product and their market for years. They’ll secure investors and funding before the product can even be made. They’ll expect to run at a loss for years. They’ll have a strategy. Know their weaknesses and hire appropriate staff.

A charity on the other hand will expect to make a ‘profit’ (to fundraise enough to serve their beneficiaries) from day 1.

And initially they’ll probably succeed…with a volunteer base and (in the words of one charity founder) “three years of sympathy” they will survive and even thrive.

But sooner or later the lack of long-term planning and sustainable income will catch up with the organization and leave it struggling. This is mixed with a pressure (external and self-inflicted) to serve as many beneficiaries as quickly as possible.

Like so many other charities it will constantly feel like it’s trying to catch up with itself or catch its breath.

Does it sound familiar? An organisation that can’t or won’t invest back in itself and its fundraising to enable long-term growth. An organisation that is running at capacity, supporting as many people as possible, trying to keep its ‘costs’ down. An organisation whose fundraising staff ‘fell in to’ the role.

It is tempting to suggest a greater barrier to entry: restrictions on registering charities and fundraising permits, based on whether or not they have a solid strategy and appropriate funding to launch.

But this is a Catch-22, and a restriction that goes against the free market we operate in.
Instead I believe we need more support for new charities and those thinking of founding a charity. Not discouragement, but realistic advice and warnings on the challenges they will face. Readily available resources and training on fundraising, budgeting and strategy would help.

But of course, this still faces the challenge of logic trying to trump emotion…Not an easy task, as any good fundraiser will tell you.

One thought on “Three Years of Sympathy

  1. Every nonprofit I’ve ever worked for/or in has struggled with the concept of long term strategic planning and the importance of integrating fundraising and revenue discussions into each and every step of the plan – it’s bad business. They are passionate and mission driven, but that’s not enough for success. Partly I’ve worked in very lefty type orgs, and progressives are not known for their business savvy. 🙂 but this is true in other nonprofits too. But nonprofits are businesses and could benefit from importing business plan modeling etc. in our planning.


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