Just in time for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Marie Claire published an article exploring the $6 billion breast cancer research and awareness industry and the unscrupulous behavior of some charities. Of course we know that just because your organization may have 501c3 status, it does not automatically mean that you are operating for the benefit of the public. Yet the article explores something else that many social change makers may not consider: what happens when your cause becomes too popular?
What might seem like a dream—your cause being championed across sectors, nonprofits doing great work in this area are celebrated, various ways of engagement exist to allow better connection with the public—can quite easily become a nightmare. Specifically, you have folks simply jumping on the bandwagon of the cause du jour with the desire to make a quick buck. Whether in the form of outright stealing or clever financial accounting, the goal for some is to capitalize on the public’s good will, landing many nonprofits—including even the most diligent ones—in trouble as folks lose trust and take back their support.
However, while this problem is serious and can harm the public’s trust in both the cause and organizations working around it, it is not inevitable. Indeed, there are conversations happening throughout the sector that are forcing us to be more deliberate and transparent the potential for scamming and are important to examine as we push for greater public support of our causes:
The drawback to buying cause related goods
It has become all too easy for folks to simply sell pink items with no intention of giving proceeds to organizations that focus on the disease. Additionally, what may seem like cross sector collaboration and new ways of engagement are actually easier ways to deceive the public or have your cause co-opted (remember the KFC-breast cancer fiasco?) Some of this cannot be controlled, but some of it can in the form of more thoughtful corporate partnerships. How should nonprofits select corporate partners?
The growing ease of checking nonprofits
Better Business Bureau, Guidestar, Charity Navigator, GiveWell, and others all serve a similar function: to help the public make better choices about where their donations should go. While the process of measuring the effectiveness of nonprofits is constantly being tweaked (Charity Navigator just launched a new approach to assessing nonprofits) the rise of these types of organizations signals a shift in how we view nonprofits: not just as warm fuzzy places that do nice things, but as organizations with responsibilities that need to be held accountable. GiveWell in particular talks about “room for funding” in that some nonprofits and causes they examine do not need more money. Will more nonprofits embrace greater transparency?
The need for easier financial reporting and understanding
The article points that since 990s are prepared by nonprofits themselves and don’t always disclose key financial information (like how much is paid to consultants) they may not always be reliable. Of course, 990s are not always the easiest to read, can be a pain to complete, and some information may not be as necessary as the author claims. However, maybe the push for this information can spark a larger conversation on what information is necessary and how this information should be presented. For example, focusing on overhead is simply not the best way to measure a nonprofit’s effectiveness. We, in the sector, know this, yet how can we start working with the public to understand this and why this matters? How can we make nonprofit finance interesting and easy to understand and share?
Articles like the one published by Marie Claire may make us feel defensive and may make us hesitant about our attempts to raise awareness. However, they are actually opportunities to clarify misconceptions, talk about the work we do, and brainstorm solutions to do it more effectively. Isn’t that the point of raising awareness in the first place?
What’s your take on the article?