By Todd Cohen
The charitable world is at a crossroads.
Nonprofits are worried. They fear the flood of donations for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could hurt normal fundraising, which already promised to be tougher than usual because of the slumping economy and decline in endowment values.
And donors are confused. Many feel they must choose between supporting, on the one hand, victims of terrorism and, on the other, local and national charities that deliver a broad range of services critical to our society.
Nonprofits compound the confusion. Some – whether or not they’re actually involved in the relief effort — have quickly fashioned fundraising pitches to tap donors’ desire to support victims of the terrorism.
Others, while praising the work of relief charities, have emphasized the critical and ongoing role they themselves play in our communities.
Fortunately, there’s a way out of the confusion that can lead to stronger philanthropy.
Charities and donors need to think carefully about the kind of future they want to build and the role they want to play in building it.
Instead of simply either hitching their fundraising to the current crisis, or pitching themselves as irreplaceable gears in our communities, charities need to equip themselves to play a more engaged civic role.
That means sticking to their mission, girding their internal operations, teaming up with donors and partners that share their goals and developing long-term fundraising, marketing and investment strategies.
And instead of simply writing checks and choosing from among competing charities with immediate needs or marquee projects, donors need to become long-term investors and partners.
That means sharing their money, time and know-how with charities that recognize the need to operate as enterprising organizations.
Change is risky. It takes time and hard work. For nonprofits, it means investing scarce resources in retooling business operations while still paying bills and delivering needed services.
Nonprofits also will be betting they can find donors willing to invest in the low-profile job of revamping the way a nonprofit works.
For their part, donors must pass up the instant gratification that stems from supporting high-profile programs and instead embrace charity as a way of making a difference for the long-term.
The terrorist attacks and the fear about the future they have triggered provide a rare chance to change the way we think about and practice philanthropy.
Faced with limited resources and bills to pay, nonprofits too often gear their energy to planning fundraising events and writing grant applications.
And unless pushed to think about their legacy, donors too often limit their philanthropy to writing checks to address immediate needs or attaching their names to charitable causes.
Philanthropy can be much more than money, and money can be much more than a short-term fix or one-time gift.
Nonprofits and donors alike can shape their charity to better reflect their deepest values, investing in more productive and enterprising forms of philanthropy and engaging themselves more deeply and effectively in the causes they care about.