Tin cup philanthropy

So, I was coming out of my local grocery store on Saturday and standing outside of the exit was a volunteer. She was holding a small plastic bank in the shape of a dog. Once I was in ear shot distance, she asked if I could spare some change for the local “low kill” animal shelter.

First, let me say that I know this charity. Second, let me say that I respect the work that this charity does. However, I did not part with my pocket change and found myself wondering instead:

  • How many hours was that volunteer standing there?
  • How much money could she possibly have collected during that time?
  • How much more money could she have raised in the same amount of time if she just asked a few of her friends who cared as much as she does about this cause to make a direct contribution?

Now there are some people who believe ALL charitable activities that ask people to make a contribution for nothing in return is “tin cup philanthropy”. If you don’t believe me, just read this Financial Times article for yourself. If you get really interested, you can cross check it with our friends at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who appear to have fallen in love with what they call “Experimental Entrepreneurship“.

As a donor and a resource development professional, I understand why so many people see traditional philanthropy as begging with a tin cup, and it goes beyond just the volunteer standing outside of my local grocery store begging for her charity of choice. It extends to many non-profit organizations who recruit volunteers who are “reluctant solicitors” in the first place and then provide little to no training to those volunteers. The end result is typically well-intentioned people going to their friends and neighbors begging them to make a pledge, purchase a raffle ticket or attend an event.

When this happens, very little time is spent talking about the community needs that the charity might be addressing with its programming. To be frank, it typically sounds like begging and sometimes degenerates into quid pro quo or favor granting.

While I am intrigued with “experimental entrepreneurship” and see nothing wrong with charities exploring it as revenue stream, I don’t think it is “the answer” to tin cup philanthropy.

Non-profit leaders need to recruit the right volunteers for their fundraising activities, and they need to do a better job of training and supporting those volunteers. Let’s stop begging and start talking about our mission; community needs & gaps; our programs, services & solutions; and most importantly the “return on investment” for the community that comes with making a charitable contribution.

Only once we start doing this will we be able to retire the old tin cup.

What has been your experience as a donor? A volunteer solicitor? If you are a non-profit staff person, am I off-base with my conclusions? And is anyone excited about experimental entrepreneurship and why?

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC


  1. Oh my heavens!! Eric, this is spot on for where we are right now. We are in the final couple of weeks in a 6-week annual campaign. We have had our board members head up teams who are to talk with 3-5 friends within their sphere of influence about the organization. We chose board members because they are our best cheerleaders and supporters, right? Most can articulate the basics of what we do but they are hesitant because they don’t have the confidence or feel like they know all they should before they speak with their friends. So we are behind in the number of asks we should have made by now and worse, we are not near our financial goal for the campaign. (Granted we will do a really good job but not like we should have. Our budgeted goal is less than our campaign goal, thankfully.) I think most of the teams do feel like they are begging – not what we want them to feel. Most did not go through the training – because they felt like they did not need it, they had done this before during the capital campaign in 2000. A very long time ago. There have been basic questions all along the way, which would have been answered if they had gone through the training. Needless to say, you can lead a horse to training but you can’t make them take it. So we will hold our golf events and our special events and send our letter to 4000 of our friends to garner enough money to get through but not to do what we really can and want to do. Maybe a teaching moment in every board meeting would help get those talking points out and subtly give the info they need to be more casual in their approach and more intentional in what they say. Maybe not. Will keep trying.
    Perfectly timed post – !

    1. I love it when one of my posts hits a “sweet spot”. It makes this blog more rewarding for me to write. Thank you for the feedback and good luck with finishing up your campaign. In addition to training, you might consider adding new blood to the campaign next year and instituting a “solicitation buddy” policy. People are far less likely to “cut corners” and do something counter to the training if there is someone else with them. I suspect it is because they are afraid of being judged???

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