Charity’s Foot Soldiers

By Patrick Doyle | Boston Magazine |

Apparently, we do. Without ­Pallotta’s marketing, databases, and event-­organization skills, participation in the 2003 Avon breast cancer walks dropped by 80 percent. The net amount generated for the charity to make grants plummeted from $70.9 million to $11.1 million. (Pallotta, meanwhile, sued Avon for breaking its contract; an arbiter ruled in his favor on the breach of contract claim.) The AIDS races saw similar results, with net returns on donations dropping from $6.1 million to $1.6 million. In purifying the races, removing any taint of business, a whole lot less money wound up going to charity.

Learning all this left me at a loss. So I called up David Hessekiel, the president of the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, which advises nonprofits on holding those “a-thon” races.“There’s nothing, unfortunately, magical about fundraising,” he says. “If it were magical, we would all wake up and write checks. So if you’re able to get more people to participate in your program by providing a higher level of service and requiring them to raise more money to cover those costs, then that’s the cost of doing business.”

Ugh.

The whole thing still felt dirty, like people were being tricked into donating thanks to flashy marketing and events rather than being convinced to do so via appeals to their goodwill. So I started to dig into the numbers behind charitable organizations. Where, I wondered, do they actually get their money? According to the Giving USA Foundation, American charities received more than $290 billion in nongovernmental contributions in 2010, with just 5 percent of that coming from corporations. Another 14 percent came from foundations, and 8 percent from estate bequests. That left a remarkable 73 percent, or more than $211 billion, coming from individuals.

But when was the last time you woke up and decided, without prodding, “Hey, I’m going to give $100 to the Red Cross today”? My bet is never. Unless you’re a churchgoer — one of those weekly victims of loving, put-$20-in-the-basket nods from your neighbors — you’re probably motivated to give only when you’re actually asked to do so. Like, say, when a big hurricane tears through a developing country, a lot of people get hurt, Bono runs around asking people to text in contributions, and everyone — feeling a connection to humanity — donates $15 on a credit card. Or, you know, when your friends ask you to.

Which made me realize: Most charities need people to be obnoxious on their behalf. Without foot soldiers on the ground, without holding big events, a lot of nonprofits would get left behind. If not for my friend running the New York City Marathon, I likely wouldn’t have given to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I also probably wouldn’t have done a cheek swab to register as a potential bone marrow donor. My entire relationship with that organization was built upon the trust I have in a friend who wanted to honor the passing of her father. She committed, sacrificed her time and body, and got the rest of us to give money.

Okay, I get it now: All that nagging is necessary. But you know, it still annoys me. Not because of what it says about the purity of charity—not anymore. No, my problem is with how the begging is done these days. Fundraising used to be personal. You had to write actual letters, or make phone calls, or knock on doors and ask people to give. Today, anyone can carpet-bomb their contacts with an e-mail, which is barely a step above buttonholing us at the checkout aisle or on the street. To those who argue that technology has made fundraising better, I disagree wholeheartedly.

So, a note to my friends: Next time you’re raising cash, ask me. On the phone or in person. Tell me why you want to do it, why it matters, where my money will go. I’ll happily donate to your cause. And not out of guilt.

  • Dana

    HA HA HA! I been doing marathons for over 10 yrs and I absolute HATE to fundraise. This is why… it is never-ending!! Team in Training (TNT) is the WORST of them all! They even got pre-written sobbing email templates for people to use. All they have to do is fill out the person’s name and email address and everything else is taken care of. Then you get an email looking like your friend just wrote it for a “worthy cause”. Don’t get me wrong, it is. But if someone is really dedicated to fundraising for a cure of their choice, donate it directly to the hospital or research. Cut out the middle person. TNT gets a cut of those donations. On top of that, people who signs up get a free trip out of it. Do you know for races out of their hometown, they will “pay” for their flights and hotel? Who pays them? YOU DO! You people who “donate” to their cause! And people who repeatly asking their friends and family to donate is just tacky.