Monday, November 21, 2011

The Status Trap

For decades the Salvation Army has ranked as one of the “most respected nonprofits.” It engenders the respect of the American public not only because it provides a valuable service to those in need but because it does so in such an unassuming way. The enduring face of the Salvation Army is the bell-ringer, clad in humble uniform, tending the kettle, often shivering, as Christmas shoppers scurry by.

The unpretentious example of the Salvation Army stands in contrast to other philanthropy-seeking organizations that have slipped, or charged headlong, into the status trap. This includes some nonprofits and some institutions of higher learning. Evidence of this in the recent history of higher education includes too many institutions making poorly-documented claims of “excellence;” assertions of being or becoming “world-class” unsupported by performance goals or specific service obligations; the unseemly jiggering of data to jostle for higher U.S. News rankings; or engaging in “arms races” for faculty stars, cognitively-gifted students, or “state-of-the art” technology and facilities.

The consequences of status-seeking in higher education can be seen in the disenchantment of alumni whose annual giving has declined for 17 years straight. The most prominent reasons for that decline, according to a survey done by Engagement Strategies Group, are alumni feeling as if they paid “enough already” in tuition, that they haven’t been giving a “good enough reason” to give, that donations go into “a black hole,” that their alma maters “don’t need the money” and that small gifts won’t make a difference.

Millions of Americans who toss small gifts into black kettles don’t share the same misgivings. They trust the Salvation Army because of past performance in service delivery and because all its unassuming identity offers proof positive that the money is going to the poor and needy, not to make the salaries of administrators more handsome, or its headquarters more gleaming, or to tangential initiatives intended to make the Salvation Army “a world-class” nonprofit. No, the Salvation Army has achieved status in the most honorable and sustainable way, through humble and effective service. And there is much that every philanthropy-seeking organization can learn from them, especially now.

Claimants for private support can greatly improve their competiveness by eschewing anything that smacks of status and self-promotion, and redirecting all available resources into activities that advance a succinct, streamlined mission. Presidents, CEOs and institutional leaders should embrace and embody an ethic of humility, minimizing the trappings but not the dignity of office, and foregoing travel that has more to do with hobnobbing in luxurious settings with one another or with celebrities than with true institutional advancement. In making a compelling case for private support, every philanthropy-seeking organization should be able to show donors how individual and collective commitments made in a given year will allow the institution to better serve its current constituents, or expand it services, or both.

Oh, and by the way, the Salvation Army now raises close to $2 billion each year. Institutional humility enhances moral authority, which, in turn, strengthens philanthropic appeal.

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