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Fundraising and the Tin-Cup Mentality

• raising money • tin cup • panhandling
Ellen Bristol

This posting is about the tin-cup mentality, and my strong desire to get rid of it once and for all. The tin-cup mentality is the state of mind that says "We're a poor lowly charity! Give us your money because we need it!" Rather than signalling your value to the world, or inviting others to celebrate your triumphs, the tin-cup mentality emphasizes yourPanhandling with a "Tin Cup" neediness. Shouting about how poor you are does not inspire confidence among philanthropists, who are your investors. Who wants to make a bad investment? It also gives rise to a terrible fundraising habit, namely, "Let's raise whatever we can and then figure out how to spend it."

There is a relationship between the tin-cup mentality and the willingness of the organization's leadership to limp along on low budgets, or no budgets at all in some cases. While it might sometimes be necessary to run on slim margins, forgo appealing projects, or wait for better times to launch new initiatives, it's a rotten idea to assume that just because you're running a nonprofit, you "can't afford" whatever it is.

Contrarian that I am, I always recommend that the board and CEO look carefully at the budget, asking, “Are we spending enough money? What would happen if we spent more?” Developing such a habit pretty well cancels out the tin-cup mentality, also known as the mentality of deprivation. Operating under this mentality, even if you’re not consciously aware of it, can really hamstring your fundraising efforts. After all, you believe that your organization’s mission delivers some benefit to the individual, the community, and the world, right? If your job is to make a positive difference in the world, what is that worth to the world? It should be worth reasonable levels of financial support. If you think it doesn’t deserve such financial support, maybe, just maybe, you’re not valuing your own agency the way it deserves to be valued and you should seek a career challenge elsewhere. I’m also going to assume that you work for your organization, serve on its board, or volunteer for it because you believe in it. You’re proud of it. Many times, you have a personal connection to it because you or a friend or relative suffered from the negative conditions your organization works to eliminate, the disease it intends to cure, or the art form it celebrates. If you’re so proud of the organization, its mission, its values, and its programs, then you need to believe that paying for it, including adequate staff compensation, is a very good thing indeed.

By all means, be prudent about your expenditures. But for heaven’s sake, you and the rest of your team should not live on scraps when a professional, robust fundraising effort will get you the money you need to do the job right.

And in the meantime, you'll bid a not-so-fond farewell to that tin cup. You've been meaning to throw it away for ages.


This blog posting was inspired by my new book Fundraising the SMART Way: Predictable, Consistent Income Growth for Your Charity. Click here to learn more.

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