A Modest Proposal

By David Shufflebarger, Senior Partner

‘If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less’

 – Eric Shinseki, military leader

The pace of change seems to be increasing dramatically, possibly because of remarkable advances in technology. How to keep up and adapt are challenges we all face, and this is especially so in philanthropy. Yet we often seem reluctant to consider innovation for fear of negative consequences.

I recall matching notes with an Ivy League chief development officer who was envious of the freedom I had at a much younger institution to try a variety of new things since there were few established practices. I, on the other hand, envied the resources and success of his premier program. He said they were so successful that they were reluctant to change anything, or if they did, it took years to implement, while I was able to do things in months.

Thus, I was intrigued to see a Chronicle of Philanthropy article about the Nature Conservancy setting aside ‘a sizable chunk of money’ for a five-year program to test new approaches to reach younger donors electronically. Elsewhere, the Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Program supported a study to test the effectiveness of emerging fundraising strategies in the human services sector.

All good, but it seems to me that something far larger is called for if we want not only to keep up, but also to move up. Giving overall has been increasing steadily since the Great Recession, even though there is variance among sectors and major organizations:

Over the last 50 years, total giving has basically tracked the growth of the Gross Domestic Product at 2 percent. In other words, we have been keeping up but not moving up. Why can’t we find ways to increase that to 3 percent over the next 50 years?

To do so will require research and experimentation on a far larger scale than anything happening today.

What if a coalition of folks like the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, AHP, and the American Alliance of Museums put together a plan to test new ideas across all sectors widely and in depth over the next five years? What if this plan got support from foundations like Hewlett and Gates?

We might then learn what new approaches work well across all sectors and which ones work well in specific sectors. Then, we might be on the road to 3 percent.