“YOU are the fortress”

Right now, I’m sitting in a hotel room connected to the CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The red glow of the giant “CNN logo” across my room seeps through the drapes and into the room. My journey to help the poor in Bangladesh seems to be taking me everywhere… everywhere except Bangladesh.

My Headshot

Beth Kanter - Non-Profit Social Media Strategist

I’m spending so much time away from my passion – not because I like time off, but because convincing charities to team up with me seems to be an uphill battle. Imagine my surprise, when I found someone here in Atlanta who felt the same way as I do. Her name is Beth Kanter.

Beth was holding a seminar on how non-profits should use social media. I was in awe, captivated, and nodding to her every word. Then she started talking about how charities are like fortresses when it comes to opening up to social media & online communities – and I couldn’t help but stand up and speak out.

Beth handed me a mic, I stood up, and – as if taking a weight off my chest – told the crowd full of non-profits & charity employees and directors: “the problem isn’t social media, the problem is that YOU are the fortress”. That got their attention.

Beth's Seminar

“I’m coming from the opposite perspective,” I continued. “Social media is not my problem: I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter, 10,800 subscribers on YouTube, and 2.1 million views. Yet, despite that, I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously”.

I then turned to a lady in the front row. A lady by the name of Wendy Harman of the American Red Cross. Earlier in the seminar, Beth was praising Wendy’s admirable work for “breaking the fortress” at the Red Cross and for embracing social media for it’s operations with the Haiti earthquake.

Beth Kanter, Me, and Red Cross's Wendy Harman

While Wendy’s work is admirable, I had my own Red Cross story to share. “We need to talk” I told Wendy. “When the Haiti earthquake struck, I contacted the Red Cross. I offered to connect the community supporting my work with your efforts in Haiti. But I was dismissed as ‘just a guy on YouTube'”.

Taking a glance at Beth, I could see my time at the mic was coming to a close. “I know you have to move on in this seminar – but I want to give you two quick stories.” I pleaded. “Basically, whenever any charity does give me an inch – and does open their doors and doesn’t act like a fortress, amazing things happen”.

I told the story of how the Los Angeles Food Bank opened their doors for me. How I was able to not just donate thousands of dollars, but was also able to make a video on my YouTube channel that was seen over 300,000 times on YouTube. The story of my work with the Los Angeles Food Bank was also featured on CNN.

I told the story of how Save the Children, although a far more “fortress-like” charity, gave me the opportunity for me to help them with the Cyclone Sidr & Cyclone Aila relief operations. The results? More people learn about Save the Children through my videos than any other online video source on the internet.

I’ve struggled for the past 3 years and have consistently proven that – if a charity out there gives me an inch – I can do amazing things for them. Yet, despite that, to this very day and to this very night – no global development-centric charity has concretely agreed to team up with me in a consistent and sustained manner.

Why? Because they are a fortress. There’s no other way to put it. They would rather be a fortress than help more people, engage more supporters, or be a leader in a newly emerging form of interaction. A form of interaction that’s not going away, that’s not a fad, and is the future.

My time had ran out. Beth took the mic back. And the discussion continued to how the UN Foundation got great online exposure by bringing some American Idol celebrities to Haiti. I facepalmed and tried to grab the mic again (because I have thoughts on that too) – but there wasn’t enough time.

But, even if I had more time, I don’t know how long it takes to break a fortress.

32 Responses to ““YOU are the fortress””


  1. 1 Laura Lee Dooley

    GREAT post. I feel your pain. I think the problem is that while large NPO/NGOs are willing to allow social media development, there is still a need for control. It is still about the organization’s reputation which they are concerned needs to remain intact and on message. Also, there I’ve heard the idea that those in social media aren’t the target audience. Would love to touch base with you offline to discuss this further.

  2. 2 Laura Lee Dooley

    GREAT post. I feel your pain. I think the problem is that while large NPO/NGOs are willing to allow social media development, there is still a need for control. It is still about the organization’s reputation which they are concerned needs to remain intact and on message. Also, there I’ve heard the idea that those in social media aren’t the target audience. Would love to touch base with you offline to discuss this further.

  3. 3 Shawn

    @Laura – thanks for the comment πŸ™‚ Social media isn’t about control – it’s about creative collaboration. And “the need for control” and the need to control “the message” is exactly why charities are such fortresses. If my work has demonstarted anything, it is that much can be gained through this kind of collaboration. But, many charities not only don’t see the value in social media – but they’re willing to ignore it to keep their fortress intact.

  4. 4 Shawn

    @Laura – thanks for the comment πŸ™‚ Social media isn’t about control – it’s about creative collaboration. And “the need for control” and the need to control “the message” is exactly why charities are such fortresses. If my work has demonstarted anything, it is that much can be gained through this kind of collaboration. But, many charities not only don’t see the value in social media – but they’re willing to ignore it to keep their fortress intact.

  5. 5 Jessica

    I’d love to talk to you more about your experience and to see if you’re interested in working with me.

  6. 6 Jessica

    I’d love to talk to you more about your experience and to see if you’re interested in working with me.

  7. 7 Peg Kerr

    Glad you had the chance to network with Beth Kanter. I’ve certainly admired her work. I certainly hope that your message got through.

  8. 8 Peg Kerr

    Glad you had the chance to network with Beth Kanter. I’ve certainly admired her work. I certainly hope that your message got through.

  9. 9 Wendy Harman

    Shawn – I’m finally back at my desk and able to offer a thoughtful response.

    I am enthusiastic about your great work but want to caution you to not put words into org’s mouths. You were never dismissed as “just a YouTube guy.” I had never met you or heard from you until the other day.

    Considering the incredible focus our entire org has on making videos viral – whatever that means – I sure hope anyone you spoke to wouldn’t dismiss you in that way.

    I believe you reached out to our International colleagues (we’re a multinational federation – almost every country has a Red Cross National Society – and we’re governed by the International Federation). Considering your focus on global poverty, I’d imagine you’ll want to create a relationship with them. Try @federation or @timolue.

    I want to keep the doors open with the American Red Cross as well – but we do have exclusive contracts with video creators that sometimes hinder our ability to officially sponsor third party collaborators like yourself.

    I wish that weren’t true and we’re slowly but surely understanding the importance of amazing dogooders like you.

    One other piece of advice: Asking to become involved right after a major disaster has happened is a good way to get lost in the shuffle. This is because people are amazing and we get overwhelmed with offers to help – all great but we tend to rely on our trusted partners that had the foresight to create relationships with us before the disaster happened. That, and we can’t possibly carefully read every email offer that comes in – I was personally receiving several thousand each day for about 3 weeks after the eq hit.

    For instance, now I know who you are and will be able to recognize you in the massive shuffle next time and hopefully put you to work! In the meantime, let’s keep talking and doing good.

  10. 10 Wendy Harman

    Shawn – I’m finally back at my desk and able to offer a thoughtful response.

    I am enthusiastic about your great work but want to caution you to not put words into org’s mouths. You were never dismissed as “just a YouTube guy.” I had never met you or heard from you until the other day.

    Considering the incredible focus our entire org has on making videos viral – whatever that means – I sure hope anyone you spoke to wouldn’t dismiss you in that way.

    I believe you reached out to our International colleagues (we’re a multinational federation – almost every country has a Red Cross National Society – and we’re governed by the International Federation). Considering your focus on global poverty, I’d imagine you’ll want to create a relationship with them. Try @federation or @timolue.

    I want to keep the doors open with the American Red Cross as well – but we do have exclusive contracts with video creators that sometimes hinder our ability to officially sponsor third party collaborators like yourself.

    I wish that weren’t true and we’re slowly but surely understanding the importance of amazing dogooders like you.

    One other piece of advice: Asking to become involved right after a major disaster has happened is a good way to get lost in the shuffle. This is because people are amazing and we get overwhelmed with offers to help – all great but we tend to rely on our trusted partners that had the foresight to create relationships with us before the disaster happened. That, and we can’t possibly carefully read every email offer that comes in – I was personally receiving several thousand each day for about 3 weeks after the eq hit.

    For instance, now I know who you are and will be able to recognize you in the massive shuffle next time and hopefully put you to work! In the meantime, let’s keep talking and doing good.

  11. 11 Shawn

    Hi Wendy – first, thanks for writing! Second, you are absolutely, 100% correct.

    I hope no one read this blog post thinking I was snubbed by you. We just meet and never talked before. And I also hope that no one thinks that those I did talk to at Red Cross snubbed me either. Rather, I feel that there wasn’t a protocol in place for prioritizing requests like this (as there is for non-social media people).

    Orgs like the Red Cross have nothing to lose and everything to gain by having a system or procedure in place for teaming up with citizen journalists/philanthropists/bloggers/vloggers/tweeters like me in addition to (not in exclusion of or competition with) mainstream reporters, journalists, filmmakers, and celebrities.

    I also feel that people in my position have to be cautious of who we endorse. Just because an org is “not a fortress” does not always mean that they have the transparency, reputation, and on-the-ground results of orgs like the Red Cross. Let me put it this way: if I REALLY wanted to go to Haiti, I could have gone with a sketchy fly-by-night “charity” that inevitably crop up in the wake of a major disaster.

    But, and I feel a lot of “free agents” like me feel like I do: it’s not about having a list of places you’ve gone or the projects you’ve done. Rather, it’s about knowing that you’ve helped an honest-to-goodness cause get honest-to-goodness support that is really what drives so many of us (and especially me). We just need a chance to get our foot in the door πŸ™‚

  12. 12 Shawn

    Hi Wendy – first, thanks for writing! Second, you are absolutely, 100% correct.

    I hope no one read this blog post thinking I was snubbed by you. We just meet and never talked before. And I also hope that no one thinks that those I did talk to at Red Cross snubbed me either. Rather, I feel that there wasn’t a protocol in place for prioritizing requests like this (as there is for non-social media people).

    Orgs like the Red Cross have nothing to lose and everything to gain by having a system or procedure in place for teaming up with citizen journalists/philanthropists/bloggers/vloggers/tweeters like me in addition to (not in exclusion of or competition with) mainstream reporters, journalists, filmmakers, and celebrities.

    I also feel that people in my position have to be cautious of who we endorse. Just because an org is “not a fortress” does not always mean that they have the transparency, reputation, and on-the-ground results of orgs like the Red Cross. Let me put it this way: if I REALLY wanted to go to Haiti, I could have gone with a sketchy fly-by-night “charity” that inevitably crop up in the wake of a major disaster.

    But, and I feel a lot of “free agents” like me feel like I do: it’s not about having a list of places you’ve gone or the projects you’ve done. Rather, it’s about knowing that you’ve helped an honest-to-goodness cause get honest-to-goodness support that is really what drives so many of us (and especially me). We just need a chance to get our foot in the door πŸ™‚

  13. 13 Keith Don

    Hi Shawn,

    What you’ve said is exactly right – big orgs like us are fortresses. What Wendy has said is the reality but ultimately its not up to the ‘free agents’ to make organisations know who you are, its up to the organisations to be listening and understanding the social media landscape to know who are the voices that can help them deliver their message.

    When it comes to traditional media usually we don’t and can’t dictate to newspapers and tv networks how to present our content yet we facilitate access. In the new social media environment NGOs often take a DIY approach. Generally speaking this will only get you so far. Distribution is key, and that ony comes from partnering with strong, influential voices on issues aligned to your organisation.

    Another aspect is given more people are spending more time online than on other media forms, where are your ambassadors going to come from?

    The world has changed – just because the big NGOs are big doesn’t mean that they can control the media landscape. They couldn’t before and they can’t now. The challenge for organisations like ours is to be smart and use our size to engage new media to bring our work to a new audience that can easily be drawn to smaller, more niche, less transparent organisations that have simply cracked the SM puzzle.

    It can be done, I just don’t think anyone has really cracked it yet. The first one that does will lead the way – hopefully its us! πŸ˜‰

    Keith Don
    World Vision Australia

  14. 14 Keith Don

    Hi Shawn,

    What you’ve said is exactly right – big orgs like us are fortresses. What Wendy has said is the reality but ultimately its not up to the ‘free agents’ to make organisations know who you are, its up to the organisations to be listening and understanding the social media landscape to know who are the voices that can help them deliver their message.

    When it comes to traditional media usually we don’t and can’t dictate to newspapers and tv networks how to present our content yet we facilitate access. In the new social media environment NGOs often take a DIY approach. Generally speaking this will only get you so far. Distribution is key, and that ony comes from partnering with strong, influential voices on issues aligned to your organisation.

    Another aspect is given more people are spending more time online than on other media forms, where are your ambassadors going to come from?

    The world has changed – just because the big NGOs are big doesn’t mean that they can control the media landscape. They couldn’t before and they can’t now. The challenge for organisations like ours is to be smart and use our size to engage new media to bring our work to a new audience that can easily be drawn to smaller, more niche, less transparent organisations that have simply cracked the SM puzzle.

    It can be done, I just don’t think anyone has really cracked it yet. The first one that does will lead the way – hopefully its us! πŸ˜‰

    Keith Don
    World Vision Australia

  15. 15 Jane

    “They would rather be a fortress than help more people, engage more supporters, or be a leader in a newly emerging form of interaction.”

    As others said above, it’s about protecting reputation, dollars, and programming. And that is a good thing. Protecting ones reputation shows discplined leadership and carefulness – things I think we can agree charities should have!

    It is not that organizations are saying “we don’t want to help more people.” I think the way you phrased that is a little insulting. Organizations are saying, “We’re already helping x number of people who really depend on us; we’ve built up a solid reputation over x number of years with the public and our donors and we need to protect it to be able to KEEP HELPING the x number of people already served.”

    In partnering with a citizen journalist like yourself, a big organization that has fought to create its reputation, program, and donor base is looking at risk vs reward. The risk that something could blow up and get seized on and negatively affect revenue and ability to program is so much greater than the reward. The international charities you’re courting have revenues in the hundreds of millions that they need to preserve so they can keep helping people with it, year after year. You are proving your power inch by inch but I don’t think it’s in the millions, yet.

    A citizen journalist going off-message (and I don’t think your angry public lectures are going to make you seem like less of a risk)could inflict serious harm on an organization that could take years to undo. If charities are fortresses, it is just because there is so much on the line. A charity’s brand is one of its most valuable assets; that’s why they protect it so fiercely.

    Did you ever think about working for one of these charities? I’m sure there are fantastic smaller charities that do work globally (I’m thinking AmeriCares, AidAction) that would be thrilled to have you onboard to increase their donor base and reputation. Just a thought.

  16. 16 Jane

    “They would rather be a fortress than help more people, engage more supporters, or be a leader in a newly emerging form of interaction.”

    As others said above, it’s about protecting reputation, dollars, and programming. And that is a good thing. Protecting ones reputation shows discplined leadership and carefulness – things I think we can agree charities should have!

    It is not that organizations are saying “we don’t want to help more people.” I think the way you phrased that is a little insulting. Organizations are saying, “We’re already helping x number of people who really depend on us; we’ve built up a solid reputation over x number of years with the public and our donors and we need to protect it to be able to KEEP HELPING the x number of people already served.”

    In partnering with a citizen journalist like yourself, a big organization that has fought to create its reputation, program, and donor base is looking at risk vs reward. The risk that something could blow up and get seized on and negatively affect revenue and ability to program is so much greater than the reward. The international charities you’re courting have revenues in the hundreds of millions that they need to preserve so they can keep helping people with it, year after year. You are proving your power inch by inch but I don’t think it’s in the millions, yet.

    A citizen journalist going off-message (and I don’t think your angry public lectures are going to make you seem like less of a risk)could inflict serious harm on an organization that could take years to undo. If charities are fortresses, it is just because there is so much on the line. A charity’s brand is one of its most valuable assets; that’s why they protect it so fiercely.

    Did you ever think about working for one of these charities? I’m sure there are fantastic smaller charities that do work globally (I’m thinking AmeriCares, AidAction) that would be thrilled to have you onboard to increase their donor base and reputation. Just a thought.

  17. 17 Shawn

    Hi Jane,

    Thanks for the amazingly well written critique. Let me start from your last point and work my way up.

    First, yes, my work has actually led to very lucrative offers for full-time employment at many of these organizations. But, despite the fact I really do need a source of income, I’ve declined such offers.

    Why? The reason is that I tell each organization that offers me a job that I can do more for them (raising awareness, generating interest & support, etc) as an outsider than I can as an employee.

    This is something I’ve put into practice & proven for at least a few charities already. I sincerely believe in the charities I support and the charities I wish to team up with. There is no point people “tuning out” and viewing my work as paid PR.

    Which leads me to the next point. If I wanted to be a PR extension of a charity, I would be nothing but a cheerleader – singing only their praises and only whispering their faults.

    But I support charities despite many of their obvious and glaring faults. Speaking openly about the good & the bad is critical to the sincerity of my work. It’s also what people supporting my work expect & deserve.

    Which brings me to your earlier points: that charities have hundreds of millions of dollars and that they must protect their reputation & dollars. You’re forgetting on thing: those dollars come from US.

    We deserve to have charities that we support and give our hard-earned cash to be open, honest, and transparent. Charities that don’t do this should expect to lose their donation dollars to those that are willing to be more transparent & open.

    Let me end on this thought: the first day I teamed up with Save the Children back in 2007, I asked my Save the Children contact if he wanted anything “off the record”. His response? “If I want something off the record, I won’t let it come out of my mouth”.

    Save the Children has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake and they are a huge charity with a decades old reputation. Yet, they were so confident in their reputation they knew that, as long as I told the truth, they would be portrayed well.

    The best way to protect a charities reputation? Live up to it and live by it. I think we can agree on that!

  18. 18 Shawn

    Hi Jane,

    Thanks for the amazingly well written critique. Let me start from your last point and work my way up.

    First, yes, my work has actually led to very lucrative offers for full-time employment at many of these organizations. But, despite the fact I really do need a source of income, I’ve declined such offers.

    Why? The reason is that I tell each organization that offers me a job that I can do more for them (raising awareness, generating interest & support, etc) as an outsider than I can as an employee.

    This is something I’ve put into practice & proven for at least a few charities already. I sincerely believe in the charities I support and the charities I wish to team up with. There is no point people “tuning out” and viewing my work as paid PR.

    Which leads me to the next point. If I wanted to be a PR extension of a charity, I would be nothing but a cheerleader – singing only their praises and only whispering their faults.

    But I support charities despite many of their obvious and glaring faults. Speaking openly about the good & the bad is critical to the sincerity of my work. It’s also what people supporting my work expect & deserve.

    Which brings me to your earlier points: that charities have hundreds of millions of dollars and that they must protect their reputation & dollars. You’re forgetting on thing: those dollars come from US.

    We deserve to have charities that we support and give our hard-earned cash to be open, honest, and transparent. Charities that don’t do this should expect to lose their donation dollars to those that are willing to be more transparent & open.

    Let me end on this thought: the first day I teamed up with Save the Children back in 2007, I asked my Save the Children contact if he wanted anything “off the record”. His response? “If I want something off the record, I won’t let it come out of my mouth”.

    Save the Children has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake and they are a huge charity with a decades old reputation. Yet, they were so confident in their reputation they knew that, as long as I told the truth, they would be portrayed well.

    The best way to protect a charities reputation? Live up to it and live by it. I think we can agree on that!

  19. 19 Shawn

    Hi again Jane, I just realized that the tl;dr version of your comment is basically that you think charities that are fortresses are a good thing.

  20. 20 Shawn

    Hi again Jane, I just realized that the tl;dr version of your comment is basically that you think charities that are fortresses are a good thing.

  21. 21 Shannon Aronin

    Hi Shawn. What an interesting conversation. Let’s take the concept out of the sphere of social media for a second and frame the topic in more traditional fundraising terms. You are a philanthropist. Your followers and friends are your connections that you leverage to do good in the world. It is highly effective because it is a peer to peer model; word of mouth has just allowed it to get bigger.

    So, let’s think of you as an extraordinary nonprofit board member for a moment. You raise more than all the other board members for the organization and have made a long term commitment to helping the organization. You DON’T want them to protect their reputation? Of course you do! If I’m a donor I want to know that the money is being well spent, but I also want to know that the organization is sustainable and will continue to exist and succeed in the future. The donor intent is to INVEST in the cause, and as an investor you want the organization to be good stewards of your gift. You want them to be transparent, but certainly they should portray themselves in the best light possible in order to keep growing their impact. If it wasn’t for those “cheerleading” fundraisers and communications folks, nonprofits couldn’t survive and help the people they do. What exactly should nonprofits be doing that would make them more transparent? Detailed financial records can be accessed online, as well as annual reports, donors lists, etc. Do they all do this perfectly? No. But I can’t figure out the connection between the Red Cross being overwhelmed during a major disaster and letting a response to you to notify you that they have exclusive video contracts slip through the cracks (ie, we can’t make this work and it’s not in the best interest of the organization right now) and the idea that they are a fortress. I’m just genuinely confused. Sometimes you get the wrong extension or inbox, and sometimes limited resources are so swamped that staff are forced to prioritize which opportunities they are going after, but in general I believe most nonprofits will gladly accept you into the fold if you care about the mission and what you propose to do is in line with the mission, organizational culture and CAPACITY.

  22. 22 Shannon Aronin

    Hi Shawn. What an interesting conversation. Let’s take the concept out of the sphere of social media for a second and frame the topic in more traditional fundraising terms. You are a philanthropist. Your followers and friends are your connections that you leverage to do good in the world. It is highly effective because it is a peer to peer model; word of mouth has just allowed it to get bigger.

    So, let’s think of you as an extraordinary nonprofit board member for a moment. You raise more than all the other board members for the organization and have made a long term commitment to helping the organization. You DON’T want them to protect their reputation? Of course you do! If I’m a donor I want to know that the money is being well spent, but I also want to know that the organization is sustainable and will continue to exist and succeed in the future. The donor intent is to INVEST in the cause, and as an investor you want the organization to be good stewards of your gift. You want them to be transparent, but certainly they should portray themselves in the best light possible in order to keep growing their impact. If it wasn’t for those “cheerleading” fundraisers and communications folks, nonprofits couldn’t survive and help the people they do. What exactly should nonprofits be doing that would make them more transparent? Detailed financial records can be accessed online, as well as annual reports, donors lists, etc. Do they all do this perfectly? No. But I can’t figure out the connection between the Red Cross being overwhelmed during a major disaster and letting a response to you to notify you that they have exclusive video contracts slip through the cracks (ie, we can’t make this work and it’s not in the best interest of the organization right now) and the idea that they are a fortress. I’m just genuinely confused. Sometimes you get the wrong extension or inbox, and sometimes limited resources are so swamped that staff are forced to prioritize which opportunities they are going after, but in general I believe most nonprofits will gladly accept you into the fold if you care about the mission and what you propose to do is in line with the mission, organizational culture and CAPACITY.

  23. 23 Shawn

    Hi Shannon – thanks for your comment. Love your well thought out response and was hoping to respond to a few points you made.

    First, I think you’re oversimplifying what I wrote a bit. But, this perhaps, is a bit my fault. I didn’t mean to suggest that just because the Red Cross didn’t work out a plan to take me to Haiti that they are a fortress. Far from it.

    Rather, this was just one example of how charities sometimes avoid teaming up with someone like me because I’m what Beth Kanter calls a “free agent”. And, Red Cross was just one – albeit imperfect – example. Afterall, many charities are just swamped during disasters. But, they did take time to 1) say they weren’t interested and 2) bring celebrities to the disaster zone instead.

    Second, my work is more than just a “video project”. It’s about getting involved hands on, connecting communities online with communities on the ground, and fundraising in a way that shows people where the money goes. On that regard, as I can tell from your comment, it seems you don’t think charities can improve on that regard. I couldn’t disagree more.

    Are you familiar with the organization called “Charity: Water”? I highly recommend you check it out. Here’s what they do: they take your donation, don’t take a cut for administrative overhead, and they let EACH DONOR know EXACTLY where their donation went. Sometimes with photos, sometimes with videos, and always with GPS coordinates so you know which town it was spent in.

    Most charities don’t do this. But they should. My project is a way of connecting people in this matter beyond just water projects – although it is far more smaller scale and more based on my individual efforts. I don’t deny that a charity needs to build its capacity. What I’m saying is that it should use its EXISTING capacity better by teaming up with “free agents” like me.

    But your last sentence hit the nail on the head. Most charities don’t want to – because it’s not within their organizational culture. Most charities have an organizational culture that is more insular and prone to avoiding teaming up with “free agents”. It’s called being a fortress.

  24. 24 Shawn

    Hi Shannon – thanks for your comment. Love your well thought out response and was hoping to respond to a few points you made.

    First, I think you’re oversimplifying what I wrote a bit. But, this perhaps, is a bit my fault. I didn’t mean to suggest that just because the Red Cross didn’t work out a plan to take me to Haiti that they are a fortress. Far from it.

    Rather, this was just one example of how charities sometimes avoid teaming up with someone like me because I’m what Beth Kanter calls a “free agent”. And, Red Cross was just one – albeit imperfect – example. Afterall, many charities are just swamped during disasters. But, they did take time to 1) say they weren’t interested and 2) bring celebrities to the disaster zone instead.

    Second, my work is more than just a “video project”. It’s about getting involved hands on, connecting communities online with communities on the ground, and fundraising in a way that shows people where the money goes. On that regard, as I can tell from your comment, it seems you don’t think charities can improve on that regard. I couldn’t disagree more.

    Are you familiar with the organization called “Charity: Water”? I highly recommend you check it out. Here’s what they do: they take your donation, don’t take a cut for administrative overhead, and they let EACH DONOR know EXACTLY where their donation went. Sometimes with photos, sometimes with videos, and always with GPS coordinates so you know which town it was spent in.

    Most charities don’t do this. But they should. My project is a way of connecting people in this matter beyond just water projects – although it is far more smaller scale and more based on my individual efforts. I don’t deny that a charity needs to build its capacity. What I’m saying is that it should use its EXISTING capacity better by teaming up with “free agents” like me.

    But your last sentence hit the nail on the head. Most charities don’t want to – because it’s not within their organizational culture. Most charities have an organizational culture that is more insular and prone to avoiding teaming up with “free agents”. It’s called being a fortress.

  25. 25 Shannon Aronin

    Hi Shawn. I don’t work at Charity:Water, although I am certainly familiar with them (volunteered for Twestival, just day of event). They are a great org, so don’t take anything I say as anything against them. But there are a few issues… this idea that you can see EXACTLY where your money is going is basically a neat little web app that says ok, we have a budget we have to raise. X dollars are allocated here, y there, etc. So when you make a gift, it can knock off part of the amount it needs to raise for that particular area and give you a GPS coordinate. But in truth, it’s all one pot of money going to predetermined projects. Look at their 2008 audit on their website. (Actually it’s kind of weird, and not very transparent, that 2009 isn’t up yet even though it appears they run on a calendar year, and it’s hard to find their 990s on guidestar because the organization’s legal name is actually Charity Global, but that’s not atypical.) See that nearly $2 million is unrestricted funding? That’s general operating support. They spent over $500K on “Management & General,” (some of which is programmatic) and nearly $400K on fundraising and PR. Their rent is $54K. They spend about $70K on postage and printing. In 2008, their Founder and President earned over $100K (have to read the 990, which they don’t post, to know that). Plus legal and accounting fees. Given an overall budget of $5.5 mil, most of which goes directly to people who need clean water, I would say they are doing a pretty good job. But if they say they have no overhead it is because they are packaging it better. Basically, as stated in their audit, they have gone to their MAJOR donors, who understand how their org works, and asked them to make unrestricted gifts to cover their admin expenses, or general operating support. That way they can say to individual lower level donors, who don’t understand their inner workings and operational needs, that THEIR money is going 100% to programs. And they have to spend money taking those photos and videos to make you feel like you’ve made a big difference, that’s probably from marketing funds. They are just doing a better job of making you FEEL more involved in my opinion.

    I HATE the expression “administrative overhead,” and the idea that this should be any way to evaluate an org. It’s an oversimplification. You know the type of nonprofits that have the highest overhead typically? Hospitals. Doesn’t mean they don’t do good work or are wasteful, it just means medical causes are expensive to run because medical equipment, drugs and doctors are expensive. Often, overhead (a word that everyone has a different definition for) is really paying the salaries of program staff, the people who make it happen. Charity:Water has a paid staff. Including quite a few fundraising, marketing, web, etc. people. In fact they are a highly savvy at marketing their org, skills that don’t come free. It’s all about how they frame it to different audiences.

    A lot of foundations will only fund “programs” and not “operating expenses,” even if an org is exactly in line with their mission. So orgs need to frame their regular activities as programs, which usually is just a question of good grant writing, my personal specialty.

    Charities can ALWAYS improve engagement; on that we agree. I just want to make sure we are evaluating them fairly. And I think all too often frustrations with nonprofits stem from a lack of understanding of how they really work from the inside – how they determine their budget, what it takes to make their budget, who they get their funds from, and the hoops they (staff) jump through to secure those funds and move mission aligned programs forward. When the Red Cross told you thanks but no thanks, they had God knows how many people involved in setting policies that staff had to adhere to. There are board members (volunteer policy setting leaders, are they part of the fortress?) to answer to, media (both traditional and new), not to mention the folks they are actually trying to help, all under great stress for less money than they could probably earn elsewhere. These “cheerleaders” are passionate about what they do and who they help. That’s what makes the culture part. Culture includes organizational structure, hopefully a structure and leadership that leads to good decision making and ever expanding capacity.

    I get frustrated that good charities are forced to focus even harder on the “packaging” instead of their real work. I’m much more interested in looking at an org’s overall budget, knowing the cost to serve one, knowing how many they serve, and knowing the impact they have on one. I also like to know that they are not paying senior staff excessive salaries, and I judge excessive as generally slightly less than they might make at a for profit corporation. They bring skills, they didn’t take a vow of poverty, and I’m ok with them making a decent living making the world a better place.

    I think you are right, YOU personally, because of your extensive network, can probably do more from outside an org, but this is nothing new. Board members are essentially outsiders, or free agents, who lead. I think you would make an AWESOME AMAZING board member for a very lucky organization or two. (AND the Board gets all the glory. Staff, who recruited, trained coached and scheduled the board member in preparation for those peer to peer asks, stay out of the limelight.) If board members or free agents worked for an org, they are no longer peers to their donors and their connections are less valuable in raising funds. But you could also probably understand better why they look like fortresses to you if you worked inside an org. I feel like fortress is another way of saying well organized, large, and with a great number of stakeholders to answer to. And, as Wendy pointed out, in the middle of a crisis may not be the easiest time to become a valued stakeholder.

    Nonprofit staff spend their lives working on the issues we care about. They know the challenges inside and out. I think we should be MORE accepting of overhead and really listen to what nonprofits truly need so they can spend less time trying to frame their expenses to what we (individual donors), who don’t work on their cause every day, think that money should be spent on. But that means we, as the philanthropic market, need to become better educated on how orgs work and develop reasonable expectations for expenses and operational procedures.

  26. 26 Shannon Aronin

    Hi Shawn. I don’t work at Charity:Water, although I am certainly familiar with them (volunteered for Twestival, just day of event). They are a great org, so don’t take anything I say as anything against them. But there are a few issues… this idea that you can see EXACTLY where your money is going is basically a neat little web app that says ok, we have a budget we have to raise. X dollars are allocated here, y there, etc. So when you make a gift, it can knock off part of the amount it needs to raise for that particular area and give you a GPS coordinate. But in truth, it’s all one pot of money going to predetermined projects. Look at their 2008 audit on their website. (Actually it’s kind of weird, and not very transparent, that 2009 isn’t up yet even though it appears they run on a calendar year, and it’s hard to find their 990s on guidestar because the organization’s legal name is actually Charity Global, but that’s not atypical.) See that nearly $2 million is unrestricted funding? That’s general operating support. They spent over $500K on “Management & General,” (some of which is programmatic) and nearly $400K on fundraising and PR. Their rent is $54K. They spend about $70K on postage and printing. In 2008, their Founder and President earned over $100K (have to read the 990, which they don’t post, to know that). Plus legal and accounting fees. Given an overall budget of $5.5 mil, most of which goes directly to people who need clean water, I would say they are doing a pretty good job. But if they say they have no overhead it is because they are packaging it better. Basically, as stated in their audit, they have gone to their MAJOR donors, who understand how their org works, and asked them to make unrestricted gifts to cover their admin expenses, or general operating support. That way they can say to individual lower level donors, who don’t understand their inner workings and operational needs, that THEIR money is going 100% to programs. And they have to spend money taking those photos and videos to make you feel like you’ve made a big difference, that’s probably from marketing funds. They are just doing a better job of making you FEEL more involved in my opinion.

    I HATE the expression “administrative overhead,” and the idea that this should be any way to evaluate an org. It’s an oversimplification. You know the type of nonprofits that have the highest overhead typically? Hospitals. Doesn’t mean they don’t do good work or are wasteful, it just means medical causes are expensive to run because medical equipment, drugs and doctors are expensive. Often, overhead (a word that everyone has a different definition for) is really paying the salaries of program staff, the people who make it happen. Charity:Water has a paid staff. Including quite a few fundraising, marketing, web, etc. people. In fact they are a highly savvy at marketing their org, skills that don’t come free. It’s all about how they frame it to different audiences.

    A lot of foundations will only fund “programs” and not “operating expenses,” even if an org is exactly in line with their mission. So orgs need to frame their regular activities as programs, which usually is just a question of good grant writing, my personal specialty.

    Charities can ALWAYS improve engagement; on that we agree. I just want to make sure we are evaluating them fairly. And I think all too often frustrations with nonprofits stem from a lack of understanding of how they really work from the inside – how they determine their budget, what it takes to make their budget, who they get their funds from, and the hoops they (staff) jump through to secure those funds and move mission aligned programs forward. When the Red Cross told you thanks but no thanks, they had God knows how many people involved in setting policies that staff had to adhere to. There are board members (volunteer policy setting leaders, are they part of the fortress?) to answer to, media (both traditional and new), not to mention the folks they are actually trying to help, all under great stress for less money than they could probably earn elsewhere. These “cheerleaders” are passionate about what they do and who they help. That’s what makes the culture part. Culture includes organizational structure, hopefully a structure and leadership that leads to good decision making and ever expanding capacity.

    I get frustrated that good charities are forced to focus even harder on the “packaging” instead of their real work. I’m much more interested in looking at an org’s overall budget, knowing the cost to serve one, knowing how many they serve, and knowing the impact they have on one. I also like to know that they are not paying senior staff excessive salaries, and I judge excessive as generally slightly less than they might make at a for profit corporation. They bring skills, they didn’t take a vow of poverty, and I’m ok with them making a decent living making the world a better place.

    I think you are right, YOU personally, because of your extensive network, can probably do more from outside an org, but this is nothing new. Board members are essentially outsiders, or free agents, who lead. I think you would make an AWESOME AMAZING board member for a very lucky organization or two. (AND the Board gets all the glory. Staff, who recruited, trained coached and scheduled the board member in preparation for those peer to peer asks, stay out of the limelight.) If board members or free agents worked for an org, they are no longer peers to their donors and their connections are less valuable in raising funds. But you could also probably understand better why they look like fortresses to you if you worked inside an org. I feel like fortress is another way of saying well organized, large, and with a great number of stakeholders to answer to. And, as Wendy pointed out, in the middle of a crisis may not be the easiest time to become a valued stakeholder.

    Nonprofit staff spend their lives working on the issues we care about. They know the challenges inside and out. I think we should be MORE accepting of overhead and really listen to what nonprofits truly need so they can spend less time trying to frame their expenses to what we (individual donors), who don’t work on their cause every day, think that money should be spent on. But that means we, as the philanthropic market, need to become better educated on how orgs work and develop reasonable expectations for expenses and operational procedures.

  27. 27 Shawn

    Hi Shannon – thank you for your well thought out reply. I also received your email in which you mentioned that you’re familiar with Beth Kanter & Allison Fine’s work on “The Networked Non-Profit”.

    I mention this because, a non-profit can be an organization but it also must be – to use Beth & Allison’s metaphor – like an organic sponge. In that it must let water (in this case ideas) flow in and out easily.

    I’m familiar with organizations, both inside and as an outsider, enough to know that many have regulations, red tape, and a million things to consider. But, like Beth advocates, I think they need to be less about rigid structures – and more about open networks.

    Also, I think you’re confusing “Board Members” with “free agents” – the two are entirely non-interchangable. I also, don’t disagree that organizations need overhead and I don’t dispute that overhead can do good things.

    Finally, what Charity: Water does is more than just fancy presentation. If you visit Charity: Water’s water projects – you’ll find the name of these “lower” donors on the water projects.

    The idea of letting these “lower” donors know where their money goes is brilliant. And, if richer Rockefeller-style donors want to pay for overhead (including a $100k salary for it’s founder – none of which comes from public donations) that’s fine by me too.

    But, this line of conversation is kind of venturing away from what the blog post is about. This may not be a suitable venue for discussion these larger issues which tend to get debated ad nauseam.

  28. 28 Shawn

    Hi Shannon – thank you for your well thought out reply. I also received your email in which you mentioned that you’re familiar with Beth Kanter & Allison Fine’s work on “The Networked Non-Profit”.

    I mention this because, a non-profit can be an organization but it also must be – to use Beth & Allison’s metaphor – like an organic sponge. In that it must let water (in this case ideas) flow in and out easily.

    I’m familiar with organizations, both inside and as an outsider, enough to know that many have regulations, red tape, and a million things to consider. But, like Beth advocates, I think they need to be less about rigid structures – and more about open networks.

    Also, I think you’re confusing “Board Members” with “free agents” – the two are entirely non-interchangable. I also, don’t disagree that organizations need overhead and I don’t dispute that overhead can do good things.

    Finally, what Charity: Water does is more than just fancy presentation. If you visit Charity: Water’s water projects – you’ll find the name of these “lower” donors on the water projects.

    The idea of letting these “lower” donors know where their money goes is brilliant. And, if richer Rockefeller-style donors want to pay for overhead (including a $100k salary for it’s founder – none of which comes from public donations) that’s fine by me too.

    But, this line of conversation is kind of venturing away from what the blog post is about. This may not be a suitable venue for discussion these larger issues which tend to get debated ad nauseam.

  29. 29 Shannon Aronin

    Sorry for delayed response… had out of town guests and am just catching up.

    I just wanted to clarify that I do understand the difference between Board Member and free agent, but that there are a striking number of similarities, particularly when the free agent wants to get as deeply involved as you do, and is therefore a great model to look at when considering these issues. You want to volunteer and leverage your network for organizations you feel connected to.

    As for Charity: Water, naming rights don’t change the fact that they have a campaign targeting individual donors that goes right into the organizational operating budget under programatic funding. But that is still a line item of their overall budget. Great org, and definitely have some great ideas. I wouldn’t call it fancy presentation so much as smart marketing. But I just don’t know that giving you a GPS on where your money is going and then taking pics of these projects is ground breaking when it’s not as if they are doing all of this with an all volunteer staff and no overhead. It’s not just about being “richer Rockefeller-style” donors, it is about funders that understand what it takes to run an organization effectively and supporting those efforts. I think it is about being able to say the following when donating money to any organization:

    “I have read your financial reports and website. I understand your mission and through a glance at public records have determined that your organization is fiscally sound and responsible. I believe in your cause and your methods for affecting that cause. I know that you as an org know your business better than I do, so here is a check that I trust you will be good stewards of and keep me in the loop on your good work.”

    There are some bad nonprofits out there. One prominent one here in my city of Austin was recently shut down due to serious embezzlement by the ED! But most nonprofits would benefit most from fewer accountability restrictions and the need to give you GPS coordinates and more trust, which must be earned, from donors. Fewer reporting requirements mean less staff time from development and communications people, and more time spent recruiting new donors to advance stability and sustainability, and perhaps additional funds for the program people “in the field.”

    Anyway, I did send you an email to discuss interest in working with you. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Thanks,
    Shannon

  30. 30 Shannon Aronin

    Sorry for delayed response… had out of town guests and am just catching up.

    I just wanted to clarify that I do understand the difference between Board Member and free agent, but that there are a striking number of similarities, particularly when the free agent wants to get as deeply involved as you do, and is therefore a great model to look at when considering these issues. You want to volunteer and leverage your network for organizations you feel connected to.

    As for Charity: Water, naming rights don’t change the fact that they have a campaign targeting individual donors that goes right into the organizational operating budget under programatic funding. But that is still a line item of their overall budget. Great org, and definitely have some great ideas. I wouldn’t call it fancy presentation so much as smart marketing. But I just don’t know that giving you a GPS on where your money is going and then taking pics of these projects is ground breaking when it’s not as if they are doing all of this with an all volunteer staff and no overhead. It’s not just about being “richer Rockefeller-style” donors, it is about funders that understand what it takes to run an organization effectively and supporting those efforts. I think it is about being able to say the following when donating money to any organization:

    “I have read your financial reports and website. I understand your mission and through a glance at public records have determined that your organization is fiscally sound and responsible. I believe in your cause and your methods for affecting that cause. I know that you as an org know your business better than I do, so here is a check that I trust you will be good stewards of and keep me in the loop on your good work.”

    There are some bad nonprofits out there. One prominent one here in my city of Austin was recently shut down due to serious embezzlement by the ED! But most nonprofits would benefit most from fewer accountability restrictions and the need to give you GPS coordinates and more trust, which must be earned, from donors. Fewer reporting requirements mean less staff time from development and communications people, and more time spent recruiting new donors to advance stability and sustainability, and perhaps additional funds for the program people “in the field.”

    Anyway, I did send you an email to discuss interest in working with you. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Thanks,
    Shannon

  31. 31 Shawn

    Hi Shannon,

    If I donate to Charity: Water goes, I know 0% will be taken by Charity: Water as overhead and I’ll be 100% sure which water project it was spent on. As a donor, I want that right and am glad I have it.

    I encourage you to check out the donation page of this project. People donate to me, in their own words, because they don’t like how money “disappears” when they donate it.

    As someone who has been in the field I can tell you this: what’s on the books and what’s on the ground can be two different realities. You want me to be loyal to charity? SHOW me why.

    And THAT is just one of the reasons charity’s need to be less like fortresses.

  32. 32 Shawn

    Hi Shannon,

    If I donate to Charity: Water goes, I know 0% will be taken by Charity: Water as overhead and I’ll be 100% sure which water project it was spent on. As a donor, I want that right and am glad I have it.

    I encourage you to check out the donation page of this project. People donate to me, in their own words, because they don’t like how money “disappears” when they donate it.

    As someone who has been in the field I can tell you this: what’s on the books and what’s on the ground can be two different realities. You want me to be loyal to charity? SHOW me why.

    And THAT is just one of the reasons charity’s need to be less like fortresses.

  1. 1 World Vision on “YOU are the Fortress” | UP | uncultured project
  2. 2 The Law of Diminishing Returns | UP | uncultured project
  3. 3 How to Engage Us | UP | uncultured project
  4. 4 How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress? « My Blog
  5. 5 What Coming to Davos Means to Me | The Uncultured Project
  6. 6 5 Steps for NGOs to Move from Guilt to Empowerment | The Uncultured Project

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