Time for a Campaign to Fight (Erroneous) Myths about Nonprofits

July 19, 2011; Source: Third Sector | Stephen Cook, the editor of Third Sector, an attentive and apparently well read publication on nonprofits in the U.K., noticed recently that the British public believes that it costs charities an average of 42p (pence) to raise £1. The poll revealed that the public thinks that an acceptable fundraising number would be more like 24p. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, which published the poll, the actual fundraising cost for charities is on average 12p. Is 12p correct?

As a self-reported figure by charities, like fundraising costs reported in the U.S. on nonprofits’ 990s, it’s probably off.  But Cook notes, “The fact remains that there is a massive mismatch between public perception of fundraising costs and the reality – a mismatch that might well deter some from donating.”  He says that the facts to counter the public’s misunderstandings of the sector exist, but they’re basically circulated within what he calls the “specialist press,” meaning nonprofit journals like NPQ in this country, that are typically read by people within the nonprofit community.

That obviously doesn’t do the trick. “In your dreams, you might see a big advert by CAF or the Institute of Fundraising on the London Underground or in the Daily Telegraph, blazoning these latest figures,” Cook says. “But in real life, they are more likely to languish in the archives, feeding the sector’s well-nursed grievance about charities being misunderstood, but being used for no wider practical purpose.”

But aren’t these advertisements a nice idea? How about “Did You Know” subway and bus advertisements with facts about the nonprofit sector, meant to counter the everyday misunderstandings that we all know people have about nonprofits in this nation – because we hear them articulated by Mom, Dad, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Lily. Nonprofit Quarterly produced a map of the nonprofit economy, which is meant to dispel myths about federal, state, and private charitable flows to the nonprofit sector, but that graphic doesn’t fit easily onto a New York subway advertisement.  So how about bus and subway ads on  facts big and small, like . . .

·         Do you know how many of your neighbors and friends work for nonprofit organizations?

·         Do you know how many nonprofit organizations and churches there are in the United States?

·         Do you know how much charitable giving to human service organizations has declined in the midst of a recession?

·         Do you know the proportion of affordable housing production every year that is constructed or rehabbed by nonprofit organizations?

The questions are innumerable and the facts are there, but it would be great if they were shared with the public in a way that isn’t self-aggrandizing for the nonprofit sector, but simply educational to improve the American public’s understanding of the facts behind the 501(c)(3) tax status. —Rick Cohen