Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Charity cop – Big drives on rise

By Todd Cohen

Americans pride ourselves on living and working in an economy regulated only by an “invisible hand,” but our economy thrives largely because we choose to regulate it.

Just as few motorists would want to navigate a busy intersection without a traffic light, neither consumers nor businesses would want to operate in a marketplace with no rules protecting them against unfair or senseless practices.

Providing a marketplace in which philanthropy can do its job is equally critical – particularly in the face of rapid growth in the number and size of capital campaigns.

Until only a few years ago, even in our largest communities, only a handful of nonprofits, schools and religious congregations held big drives at roughly the same time.

Still, looking for away to better serve donors and nonprofits, civic leaders in Charlotte, the Triangle and Winston-Salem created volunteer groups to help plan and schedule big campaigns.

The idea was for the volunteer groups – made up of grantmakers and business and civic leaders – to help nonprofits think through their campaign plans, schedule the campaigns to keep them from competing with one another and help alert funders to campaigns that were in the works.

Coordinated by the Triangle Community Foundation the Winston-Salem Foundation and the United Way of Central Carolinas in Charlotte, the volunteer groups met several times a year with nonprofits to review their campaign plans.

The system worked pretty well. Nonprofits got some free advice from the very groups they expected to support them. Campaigns were scheduled at reasonable intervals to avoid fundraising collisions, and funders got an early heads-up about funding requests they were likely to receive.

The system also worked because, generally, nonprofits and funders understood that nonprofits bypassing the review process were not likely to get funded by big companies and foundations.

There were exceptions. Big charities, colleges and universities tended to skip the volunteer campaign-review groups, and still got funds from some big grantmakers.

Now, with big campaigns proliferating, the Charlotte Capital Campaign Planning Board is expanding its role, asking nonprofits to submit highly detailed data about themselves and their campaign plans.

The Winston-Salem Campaign Coordinating Committee plays a more modest role — but one that’s equally critical in helping to direct traffic.

In the Triangle, however, frustrated that big universities, charities and funders ignore the voluntary review process, the Major Campaign Review Board has decided for the next year simply to keep and publish a calendar of big campaigns – and track whether charities actually use it.

Disbanding the group would be a big loss. Whether it takes an aggressive or more modest role in helping to keep philanthropy flowing, a community only benefits when a volunteer group works to help charities and donors find common ground in the increasingly volatile marketplace of philanthropic supply and demand.

The challenge for charities and donors is to find — and not abandon — that common ground.

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