Catalyst Dallas – 3 rules for charities

May 14, 2011 — 5 Comments

I thought Scott’s approach to charity was really interesting (good to consider for how we operate as a non-profit). “From the start, we’ve made restoring people’s faith in charity an important part of our mission.”

They established three principles for Running their charity:
1) 100%

When we started charity: water, we made a bold promise to the general public — 100% of their donations would go directly to the field to fund water projects. We’d find another way to cover our operating expenses. We’re serious about 100%. We even reimburse credit card fees when donations were made online.

We depend on private donors, foundations and sponsors to cover everything from staff salaries to basic office systems to office rent and supplies.

Learn more here.


2) Proof

Prove where the money went by adding GPS and photos to each well site.


3) Brand

In a New York Times article [a must read for those who raise money] Nicholas Kristof says:  “One of the reasons [people don’t give to charities], I believe, is that humanitarians are abjectly ineffective at selling their causes. Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups.”

We want to build a charity brand every bit as good as Apple or Nike


A few more insightful points from Scott:

Opportunity vs guilt
  • People are willing to spend money. They’ll buy a margarita for $16. People just haven’t been told the right story. People don’t want to be guilted into giving. They will give when presented a compelling opportunity.
If you realize you’re wrong, admit it
  • For years we threw out this quote: “$20 can give one person clean water for 20 years”
  • Then we realized that 20 years part hadn’t been substantiated. Some wells don’t last that long.
  • So we stop using the “20 years” part
  • AND, we emailed everyone on the list to tell them we have been reporting wrong
Get a mean coach
  • Not just a coach, a ornery mean one who will make your life miserable
  • What his coach told him: “stop sending these wet noodle do-nothing emails.”
  • Find people that will tell you – not how great you are, how great your org is but what you are failing at

For those of you in Non-Profits, what would it look like for us to apply some of these principles?


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  • I think the biggest opportunity here is to learn how to tell more compelling stories and to ‘package’ what we do in a more concrete, story-oriented way.

    Also, I really like the idea of a mean coach. I think sometimes we’re too afraid to be honest about what isn’t going well and act drastically to fix it.

    • timcasteel

      I agree. I was motivated by the mean coach part- to find people who will honestly critique me/us.

  • Great points except the 100%.

    There isn’t a business person who I know who operates on no margin. Get real. Administration isn’t evil – bloated expenses and poor use of proceeds are. Be transparent, invest wisely, and as you said, sell your cause like it matters.

    • timcasteel

      I agree – but maybe we could do a better job emphasizing that we don’t have bloated admin expenses.
      Every year at our fund raising dinner I underscore that none of the money given will go to staff salaries (they raise their own support) and that we have taken great strides to cut administrative costs (getting rid of our office, cutting down on the cost of the fund raising dinner from 9k to 3k, etc). And EVERY year I have businessmen tell me how much they appreciate our efforts to cut costs and how they’re amazed we can run on such small admin costs. Granted most of those guys work for Walmart! So I’m playing to their love language!

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