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Opinion/Philanthropy Journal – Charities need a fulcrum

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By Todd Cohen

Charity needs fresh ideas about teamwork.

For generations, charities have made do with little, scraping together the dollars and volunteers needed to deliver services and pay bills.

Often short on business skills or training, charities learned from one another while learning to go it alone and make it up along the way.

Over time, charities built a kind of lesson book on how to sustain themselves by tapping donors and funders.

Because those lessons worked, they have taken on the aura of philanthropic canon.

That is bad news because the canon also has hooked charities on some bad habits.

Too many charities, for example, act as if they can do no wrong because their cause is just.

Fueled by a sense of their own rightness, they act as if they are owed charitable support.

And they scorn any back-office change, marketing drive or business alliance that smacks of commercial enterprise, yet are quick to embrace philanthropically correct gimmicks.

Still, a growing number of charities are pioneering smart new ways of doing business.

These experiments in venture philanthropy, social enterprise and organizational effectiveness are rooted in common sense, market reality and collaboration.

In place of righteous attitude and an unearned sense of entitlement, enterprising charities are taking stock of themselves, studying their customers, donors and prospective partners, tapping new support and piloting new programs.

Social Venture Partners, for example, enlists donors to contribute know-how and cash to help local charities be more effective.

And Environmental Defense has begun an initiative to find, test and promote public incentives for private landowners to better manage critical ecosystems.

Both groups recognize that charity thrives by building on what works and finding ways to work together to serve the social market.

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