Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why Successes or Having An Accomplished Track Record Is Important for Any Nonprofit to Be Able To Raise Funds

Sometimes the real world provides the best examples. 

The news came out this week that though the nonprofit, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), before this week was shut down due to reduced state and federal funding; it is flush again due to some fundraising work by none other than SETI, itself.  Before you read the following quote you should know that "ATA" stands for the Allan Telescope Array, one of SETI's newest and more powerful tools used for the search for intelligent life.  It's greatest value is in the speed at which it can study the skies in greater detail than previous technology.  In the fundraising site, SetiStars (where the funds have just been raised), they explain:

"In April, the SETI Institute had to put the ATA in hibernation mode because the program ran out of money.  The ATA is the only instrument available full time for listening for radio signals from possible intelligent sources. Without it, we may never find the answers to our questions."

"In the wake of the shutdown, the outpouring of support from all corners of the globe was staggering.  It is clear that SETI Institute’s mission resonates with people the world over — that the questions we seek to answer are universal.  Without even asking for it, the public responded almost immediately with offers to help, and donations began flowing in.  But until now we haven’t had a way to focus this interest and show of support, nor to allow the public at large to specifically support the ATA."


I am a cosmology nerd.  I am absolutely fascinated by astrophysics and the study of our universe.  I'm not adverse to the idea of life on other planets (especially given that most scientists studying the universe, today, now believe that given the great number of suns that we know exist in the universe, and the odds that favors life to have formed and developed, elsewhere, it would be hubris to assume that we are the only life in the universe).  The difference, that exists today in the conversation about extraterrestrial life, is not whether life is out there, but rather - what life one is looking for.  NASA has on staff astrobiologists studying how to find life, on its space missions, and what it might look like or give off, to indicate its there.  NASA is looking for life at the microscopic level and expecting to locate amoebas and the like rather than, say, E.T.  In contrast, SETI is looking for signals sent by other lifeforms, which presumes they're advanced and technological.  SETI looks for alien signals by (as I understand it) reviewing all frequencies of the light/sound spectrum searching for repetitive intelligent patterns indicating a non-naturally caused but rather purposeful 'hello' from Mork, or some such alien.   Don't get me wrong.  Mork & Mindy was one of my favorite television shows in the 1980's.  I'd love to meet Mork!

So, getting back to fundraising and the nonprofit world, as an example, given my affinity for space exploration (and for Mork & Mindy) one may presume I'd be a natural to give to reinstating the ATA and SETI's work, since the state and federal budget shortfalls closed its operations.  I'm not, though.  My issue is not amoebas vs. Mork, or whether I can afford to donate in this economy, or whether SETI needs one more donation (apparently they do).  My issue is professional and has to do with nonprofit best practices.

To be fair, SETI is a bit of an unusual nonprofit as not many other nonprofits (anywhere on Earth, anyway) are doing what SETI is attempting to do.  Usually this is not the case.  Usually a given nonprofit has colleague nonprofits doing similar if not precisely the same work as its doing, nearby or elsewhere.  Also, SETI's goal is a bit, shall we say for now, nontraditional.  Most nonprofits are dealing with needs that exist, right now, on Earth, that can be met.  In other words, the common nonprofit deals with issues or causes pertaining to anything from education, to health and welfare, to safety, to the environment, to religion, to historic preservation, and so on.  Yet, SETI is indeed a nonprofit.  Any and all nonprofits only operate if they are supported.  In order for any nonprofit to raise support, it must demonstrate (to those who decide to actually give) its value to a community  and the worth of its work.  If it makes its case and reaches enough potential donors so that they actually do indeed give - then the nonprofit is fundraising and they become "successful" fundraisers once they are fully funding their current goals and work.  And of course, they must be able to continue to be successful fundraisers in order for the nonprofit to be of value tomorrow, next month, next year, and so on.

The reason that I am writing this post and the reason why this example bares out is that while its donors obviously have faith in the possibility of SETI's goal, I am not donating to SETI because they have not, yet, demonstrated their ability to do what they have been trying to do since SETI began operating in 1985.  They haven't proven that their methodology works or that it should work if someone on Ork is trying to send messages to other civilizations on other worlds.  They can claim that it should work if Orkans are trying to send messages into the universe on one of the light or sound spectrum waves.  Not that anyone should not give to SETI, but personally, I'd rather donate my money to efforts that are more likely to prove fruitful by virtue of them having already succeeded.  This is why a track record (even when a nonprofit is a start up - such as proof of concept) is so critical in fundraising, today (especially among grant donors).  In terms of donors choosing to give to one nonprofit over another, I may be considered a bit of a conservative when it comes to space exploration, and perhaps those who do choose to give to SETI are enabling SETI and the world to indeed find Mork and sooner than a more conservative approach will.  I'd be proven wrong.  There's no harm in donors who see things differently.  Everyone has the right to support whomever and whatever they choose to.

The more common nonprofit, though, should understand that successes indicate a track record that demonstrates the potential for success, now and in the future.  This is what most professional fundraisers make an effort to communicate to any and all potential donors: what is the nonprofit in operation to do (it's mission statement), what is the work it does for what or whom and why (or what need in the community or universe is not yet being met, that this nonprofit can meet and meet well), and what are the current programs and recent successes?  Also, who makes up the nonprofit's team of experts and what are their credentials and where have their successes, as individuals, been over the course of their careers?  If you can demonstrate to a potential donor that their contribution will lead to future accomplishment and ethical, efficient and truly effective accomplishments (that truly meet the as yet unmet need the organization is working to meet) - then you're showing a potential donor (in demonstrable successes) how they can become a part of a successful organization's effort by supporting it.

I like SETI's moxie.  I hope that they prove my conservative concerns antiquated and actually discover Mork's intergalactic billboard saying hello to universal neighbors, on Ork, all the way from here on Earth.  I'm afraid that being who I am, I just won't be one of the team that helped SETI to do it.

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