There is an article in today’s WSJ highlighting the difficulty of maintaining charitable giving in a challenging economic environment. This particular piece highlights Arpad Busson’s ARK, or Absolute Return For Kids, and its upcoming annual dinner. Tables sell for as much as $200,000 apiece and sold out several weeks in advance. Still, Busson is concerned.

He should be. A recent US-based study of 30,000 families indicated that a reduction in annual income leads to an equivalent or higher reduction in giving.

I’ve always been curious as to why non-profits don’t get more creative when it comes to holding events that could demonstrate the true value of every dollar donated: my thesis being that the rich will give no matter what (or certainly would not give less), and the average person would be inclined to give more if she could really see and feel what her contribution means to recipients.

The example I’d offer is one that I personally experienced several years ago when volunteering for an arts organization. This organization has intensely loyal grant recipients and a devoted community, but its fundraising efforts were/are challenged (particularly after 2001). This non-profit holds events of the standard variety: dinners, galas, etc.

But this non-profit creates unique, palpable value in that its grants are literally perceived as sustenance by its recipients. Artist after artist told me (along with a pro-bono brand strategy team I organized) that the money meant he could pay his rent on his studio for x number of months – so he could create something and sell it – or that the cash let her buy food that she could not have otherwise afforded. Many artists, in fact, mentioned that they used the grant to eat: often at McDonald’s, in order to make their dollars go further. These were not hoity-toidy “let’s-hold-a-dinner-at-the-Waldorf stories: they were tales of real life – human life – and the difference this non-profit was making for artists.

As a result, we made a somewhat unorthodox recommendation to the non-profit’s board: hold your next “gala” at a McDonald’s. Approach McDonald’s as a partner. Close down the biggest, nicest McD’s in Manhattan for one night and host a fanciful black-tie party there. Serve McDonald’s food: food that represented the true value the non-profit was delivering. Have artists/grant recipients tell the crowd what the extra money meant to them – and how intimately familiar they’d become with the dollar and extra value menus…

And we proposed, by the way, that – done right – this would be the “it” event of the season in New York.   The local news coverage alone would have been hugely valuable to raise the organization’s profile in a unique and intriguing way.

In other words: show the enormous impact every dollar makes. The following year? Hold the party at a big paint/art supply store – because in addition to food, we heard a lot of stories about how the money was the only way the artist could buy supplies.

This recommendation was not approved by the board – a little too avant-garde (and, in hindsight, not adequately pre-sold prior to the presentation!). But the idea is still as real as ever – the worse the economy, the more a non-profit must go out of its way to demonstrate value in a way that touches people:  whether they give $5 or $5 million.

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