What’s the ROI on your giving?

What’s the ROI on your giving?

If you raise funds for any kind of non-profit venture, you will no doubt have noticed a sea of change in how people give. I am not talking about the “I give online” movement – that’s a change in methodology only. I mean, “What are people willing to give to these days?”

The predominate shift that our organization has noticed is that givers want to have much more say over how their money is being spent, a business-oriented approach to solving problems, and higher levels of accountability. While this is a great thing in some ways, it is also detrimental in others. A recent New York Times article highlights this new trend. It is well worth reading.

The author provides some interesting critiques of these shifts. The first is that the non-profit exist because by their very nature they are better suited to handle some problems than for-profits. Things that are difficult to measure are often not considered as viable activities by for-profit ventures. So, non-profits are created to address these issues.

A focus on project funding (with very specific deliverables and start/end dates) has forced short-term thinking onto non-profits. In some ways these is not unlike Wall Street’s obsession with short-term profits at the cost of long-term profitability. There is little investment in the infrastructure of the non-profit world and over time we will see the results of this in a diminishing return on any investment we make in them.

Another point is well summed up in the last paragraph, in a quote from Ms. Enright of the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations:

“The presumption is that the donor knows more about how to address a given problem than its grantees, and I think that’s usually not a correct presumption,” she said, “More operating support can shift the locus of action and ideas to the people who are closest to the problem.”

In other words, “Do we trust those people on the ground that are closest to the problems to make the right decisions OR are we telling them what to do from afar?” The history of missions would suggest that when the “home office” tells “the field” what to do there are problems. It’s far better to let those closest to the action make the most decisions. Yet, in a rush for greater accountability, there seems to be a huge shift toward donors being empowered to make funding decisions.

Associated with this trend is the BAM movement. I am a firm believer that the BAM movement is a very positive trend within the mission community. There are, however, parallels to this movement’s weaknesses and the weaknesses mentioned in the New York Times article.

For example, a common theme I hear within the BAM movement is that business men and women are better able to reach the world than “traditional missionaries.” Why? Well, they have been successful in business, of course, so they therefore see themselves as equipped to do have the same success in ministry. This is also a phenomena I have observed among some large, aggressive mega-churches. In both cases I want to make sure to note that it’s not always the case, but it is something I have personally observed.

Let me ask a simple diagnostic question about funding a particular ministry for you to ponder. If you were approached by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to be a part of his “support team,” what would be your answer? As you know, Isaiah didn’t experience much success in the outward manifestation of his ministry. In fact, he himself said that he saw no spiritual transformation in the people to whom he ministered. Isaiah’s “non-profit” (no pun intended) had its doors open for about forty years. He was under orders to make it difficult for Israel to repent (see Isaiah 6:10). Now that’s the kind of ministry that I want to support!

Yet, Isaiah was God’s man for the job. Would you support him? Would you ask him what the “ROI” (return on investment) would be for the donations you are making?

Somehow the idea of “Giving” and “ROI” doesn’t seem quite right to me. On the other hand, irresponsible giving is also an error. Does the solution lie in balancing our giving?Perhaps we need to diversify our giving portfolio… Oh-oh, I just did it again!

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