One explicit piece of fundraising “tech” I have been taught several times is: “don’t be negative.” I have been taught this by directors of development at major institutions, in nonpartisan and in conservative donor-development “boot camps,” and in real life, so it seems to be a well-known maxim.
Specifically, the claim is that megadonors respond better to the always sunny. If you are a conservative think tank and are pro-family, and you have a competitor, you don’t say they are bad, even if they are. You say, “They are great and doing valuable work, but our niche is a bit different.” Negativity turns off megadonors.
I’ll shortcut the thinking, but what does this tell us about these donors? 1.) They are buying community, not projects; 2.) they are unfazed by or insensitive to failure; and, 3.) they are not primarily goal- or project-driven, but more relationship-driven.
If this is you, you should be concerned. Philanthropy should be philanthropic, and less concerned about price or ROI.
That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be goal-driven, and that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t demand accountability. Obviously, there is a sliding scale. For certain functions, you can count on outside accountability.
Soup kitchens are an example: it is extremely hard to grift a soup kitchen, precisely because it is so easy. You can embezzle money, or make sweetheart contracts, and that’s about it. Soft-hearted local volunteers will quite quickly pick up if and when an organization is honest or not, and you as a donor can drop in any time to the operation.
But it’s very easy to grift a think tank or an “outreach” organization. I have been asked a few times to help stand up nonprofits, and honestly, it’s extremely easy (same with running for public office). Anyone can fill out forms, put together some papers, and ask for money (and get money!).
From a metric perspective, an organization with a multimillion-dollar (and growing!) endowment might look successful. During the 2020 election, while I was working at The White House, many people (some of them excellent people!) were raising a lot of money they now are sitting on. Money sitting in a capital well is wasted, even if it’s on a 990.
In development finance, places like the World Bank often think about “capital absorption.” The U.S. is almost a capital forest. You can pour gallons of capital and it will be soaked right up. Real estate is expensive. You can always spend more on a website. But there are marginal ecosystems, perhaps in Third World nations, where additional capital simply cannot be spent, for many reasons. There might be too small a population, with little or no infrastructure: this is a capital desert. Or perhaps the population works a certain way, and cannot be swayed easily: this could be a marginal environment like the peak of a mountain. Dumping a pile of fertilizer above the tree line isn’t going to create a lush forest.
The nascent populist Right is like this. At this point, we need evolution and growth and time, not necessarily capital infusions. In fact, many places awash in cash (and I’ve spoken with some big ones) need to be spending more of that money—putting downward pressure on salaries and project outlays, and building out entry-level positions and scope.
This is particularly true given the correct view among many on the Right that we need decentralization. With all due respect to Charlie Kirk and organizations with which I’m familiar, centralization and capital inflows are a recipe for disaster.
The Reagan Revolution was built on the backs of a nationwide growth in small entrepreneurs in the policy and nonprofit worlds. I’m very unsure if we have the cultural “joiner” mentality that the Greatest Generation had, but we need to enable ground-up growth. A thousand flowers.
So, back to the beginning. If I’m a donor to Charlie Kirk, I don’t necessarily stop. But I hard-headedly ask him what he’s doing to cede control and enable the next generation of leaders. When does he plan on retiring or moving on? Who could take over today? If he has concerns about Big Tech’s bigness, does that raise any questions about his own organization? If he’s so positive, are there any smaller groups that he likes that do what he does, but in a particular state or issue area, which is out of his brand and control?
When I’m looking to fund a new venture, I would ask questions about board structure, and plans. What happens if you (the guy asking for money) get captured? What checks will you put on yourself? Can you give me examples of cautionary tales from other groups?
These are simple questions that are not negative, but which bravely assess downside risk. The Right complains all the time about capture, and the Ford Foundation is surely a cautionary tale. But great big grants are not a surefire fix.
There is no substitute for continued pressure, even arbitrary pressure. Withholding a year’s funding does not ruin a relationship, especially if it is advertised up front. In nature, withholding resources enables species to adapt and evolve, something that we need right now on the Right.