Sunday, June 10, 2012

Getting Out of the Entertainment Business

In my work with various institutions – educational and nonprofit – I often encounter impressive professionals putting forward impressive efforts in the name of wishful thinking.  Their intentions are the right ones – to find interesting ways of attracting more people to their cause and thereby build stronger communities of common interests.  But they’re overly reliant on big events and too concerned about making them entertaining.  

To entertain, the dictionary says, is “to hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.” That runs counter to what a cause must project to strengthen its philanthropic value proposition: gravitas.  And that is defined as “substantive, weightiness” or “a serious and dignified demeanor” all of which covey seriousness of purpose.  So why do we continue to believe that we can attract and sustain the interests of substantive philanthropists, and induce them to make considerable investments in our cause by expending significant sums and loads of labor on essentially amusing and diverting events?

Yes, I understand that we read in society news about an endless array of tony events attended by very wealthy people in very fancy clothes but that should tell us:

1. Our society is not afflicted by a shortage of entertainment options;
2. The wealthy don’t suffer from a shortage of invitations to tony events;
3. The bar for lavishness has been set very high, therefore,
4. We’re not likely increase our market share of philanthropic support by out-entertaining the completion or out-entertaining the everyday entertainment options available to most people.

Even if we could come close to competing or catch some wealthy folks otherwise engaged on some evening when their were only four galas rather than the usual twelve to choose from, we need to remember that being wealthy and being philanthropic are not one in the same; therefore:

1. We may be spending a lot to attract the wrong people and repel the right ones;
2. We may be sending the signal that we’re far better off than we are thereby undercutting our larger case for support.

I could say, “Entertaining events simply are not worth the time and money” but it would be more helpful to say, “The same amount of time and money applied to weightier efforts will yield a far greater philanthropic return in the short and long run.”

So, back to the original proposition, how do we attract the right people to worthy causes?  By asking ourselves what might cause someone with a social conscience and a philanthropic heart to look at our invitation and conclude, “Of all the requests and invitations that have crossed my desk in recent months, this seems particularly important because:

1. It might offer some fresh insight into an important issue,” or
2. “It offers a way to advance my beliefs or value system,” or
3. “It has the potential of making a difference where a difference really needs to be made,” or
4. “It would be wrong me to not be there.”

Our plans should seek reverse engineer those conclusions.  It’s not as if we have to rule out the possibility of doing something joyous.  Seriousness of purpose doesn’t require us to be somber.  Defining the difference your institution can make and delivering on that promise will bring endless joy to your days and to those who help advance your cause.