(Less Than) Transparent Fundraising: Is This Ever Okay?


Last night on Valentines’s Day, the All Need Love Festival took place in Chicago. Held at the Field Museum it was supported by a PR machine – in less than one month they had built a very strong social media presence, had successfully reached out to and partnered with dozens of media outlets and had worked out a deal with Groupon to help in ticket sales.

I noticed the social media buzz and had seen it mentioned in the Chicago Tribune and The Sun Times. The All Need Love “profile” on foursquare had even sent me a friend request. Still, I didn’t pay too much attention because it fell on my cause community’s awareness day.

Once my work day was done last night I went on their site to figure out what exactly it was. On the bottom of the page along with the logos for the event sponsors and partners I noticed a logo I recognized, SFK: Success for Kids. They used to be named Spirituality For Kids and I had contributed to a project of theirs, Kids Creating Peace, in the past.

Naturally I wondered how they were involved…there was no mention on the home page that a portion of proceeds from this event would benefit a charity, no mention on the information page for tickets and no mention on the purchase page for tickets (priced from $96-$260). The event site has 10 pages and I didn’t notice it anywhere.  I tweeted them to ask, emailed their press contact and called the event hotline. No luck. I checked their facebook page and their tweet stream. Not a single word about it. I went back to the event website and finally found a page that mentioned a portion of proceeds would benefit SFK.

To be honest, at first I thought this was an interesting tactic. SFK was founded in 2001 as a related entity to The Kabbalah Centre. I knew that SFK had been working to make the public perception of the organization less about The Kabbalah Centre because they felt they could raise more money and make bigger impact that way. In January of 2010 they officially reorganized as a separate 501 (c) 3, but the staff, Board of Directors and programs didn’t change in any way and they are still headquartered at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre.

It almost seemed smart to market the event to people that weren’t just Kabbalah Centre students. Almost.

I want to say that I have no bias against Kabbalah. I have studied it and as I mentioned, I contributed to SFK in the past. But that’s not true for everyone. There are many orthodox Jews I know who would rather die than support anything related to Kabbalah and more specifically, The Kabbalah Centre. I know a fair amount of people of other faiths who feel the same way (and would about any spiritual practice not their own).

Whether it’s “right” to feel that way is a matter for debate, but what is not up for debate is that religion and our spiritual beliefs are held more sacrosanct than most anything else.

I asked people via twitter how they would feel about buying tickets to an event they weren’t aware was a fundraiser. Not a single person felt positively about this and that was without mention of what kind of charity the fundraiser might be for. What almost everyone said was “what if it was for a cause I didn’t support?”

That is why this situation is not okay. People want to know what their money is supporting and they want to agree to that first.

Did the event organizers lie? No. But their transparency was less than admirable. I found some people who went to the event and asked them if they knew it was a fundraiser when they purchased the tickets, and then asked how transparent it was that a portion of proceeds would benefit SFK once they were at the event. Most people did not know it was a fundraiser. Many people just assumed it benefited The Field Museum if it had any beneficiary at all.

Then I asked people how the event was marketed to them…and that’s how I found out that some of the tickets had been sold outside of the event website through Groupon. The Groupon page for this event is even less than transparent than the All Need Love website! It simply says “portion of proceeds goes to charity”.

This really surprised me. By not posting which charity it benefits Groupon is aiding the event organizers in keeping this information as quiet as possible. That Groupon doesn’t seem to have a policy in place when it comes to charitable events is problematic, and considering the amount of negative press they’ve gotten lately it’s also not prudent.

Again, no one involved with this event  is lying but they’re not telling the whole truth either. Do they have a legal obligation to? No. But that doesn’t make it ethical. Because the charity the event supported is so closely tied to a spiritual belief system I find it especially unethical.

I don’t think it’s ever okay to gain support for a cause through deception cloaked in omission. What about you? Would you ever do this at your organization?



Your Free Ticket To #11NTC!

Dying to go to NTEN’s Non-Profit Technology Conference (NTC) in Washington D.C. this March but can’t afford to? 501 Mission Place is sending one passionate person!

501 Mission Place uses 10% of our membership dues to give back to the social good community. We thought a lot about where to direct that money and how to use it to match our corporate ideology that networkweaving, sharing and learning from one another can fuel our individual missions to create change.

One of the reasons we started 501 Mission Place was to provide the kind of environment a conference like NTC fosters. Several important and positive organizational changes at Big Love Little Hearts came out of connections I made at last years conference, or new technologies I learned about. I met people there who have become dear friends and people who have become mentors.

After careful thought we thought the best way to give back to the social good community was to give that same experience to one of YOU.

We are proud to have chosen the 2011 Non-Profit Technology Conference as the place we think provides the best opportunities for people investing their lives in social change. NTEN is closely aligned with us in mission. We are both membership communities that run on the same belief of sharing knowledge to improve our collective missions. While 501 Mission Place is just for Non-Profit Leaders but covers a broad range of topics, NTEN is for all Non-Profit professionals but focuses on technology, social or otherwise.

So how do you become the person we send there?

The entire Non-Profit Technology Conference will be broadcast online so we want to send someone who is looking for more than just the education opportunities NTC provides.

I mentioned earlier that networkweaving was part of 501 Mission Place’s corporate ideology. Defined by June Holley:

“A Network Weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier (more inclusive, bridging divides). Network Weavers do this by connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, helping people identify their passions, and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing groups.”

While I was at NTC last year I was both an active networkweaver and a beneficiary of others’ networkweaving. While I told people my story and the things Big Love Little Hearts was working on their eyes lit up as they thought of people at the conference they knew who might be able to help me. As people told me their stories my eyes lit up as I thought of people I knew at the conference who could help them.

Do you think networkweaving at the 2011 Non-Profit Technology Conference is what you need to propel your mission forward? Tell me why in the comments box here and 501 Mission Place could be sending YOU!

  • This contest is open until February 14th at midnight. The winner will be announced here on February 15th at 12:00 p.m. CST
  • The winner will be chosen at random.
  • We’re asking you to submit your “application” via the comments box on this page instead of a form because we believe that creating a space for you to share your ideas and goals publicly will allow for some beneficial networkweaving whether you’re chosen as the winner or not.
  • You should sign your application with your name, organization/company, and a website where readers can find out more about your work.
  • You do not need to be a 501 Mission Place or a NTEN member to qualify.
  • You do not need to work for a  501 c 3 organization, but you must be working for social change.
  • This scholarship is for registration only: you must be able to provide your own transportation and housing.
  • You must provide an email address (this is hidden) when you comment with your application.
  • By applying for the scholarship you are opting-in to the 501 Mission Place free e-newsletter.


Applications should not be submitted in the comments box on this post. Instead, submit them in the comments box on this page.

To learn more about networkweaving, visit The Network Weaving Sandbox or check out the Network Weaving Blog.

The Hall of Shame: Fundraising Failures

Fundraising Hall of Shame


Last night Marc Pitman posted a blog inside 501 Mission Place about testing our assumptions. In it he included a link to one of the best resources I’ve ever seen for development officers or anyone involved in fundraising at a non-profit.

Marc asked this question: “As a donor to charity, what do we nonprofits do that REALLY annoys the tar out of you?”


The responses make up what should be required reading for every non-profit. These are mistakes that are avoidable and in many cases are common sense. Marc’s original blog inside 501 Mission Place coupled with some of these responses inspired a post I’ll share on Monday about whether we’re winning the battle but losing the war in fundraising. Until then, I wanted to share one of  the more striking answers:


From Susan Smith – Marc: My answers are not unlike many you’ve received already, but I’m glad you asked!

1. Assumptions that since I gave to a similarly-missioned npo, I will give to another or 20 others just like it. I had my reasons for giving to the one – don’t assume that I give indiscriminately. You’re “like missions” are not all alike, not by a long-shot.

2. Phone calls that sound like they are coming from a boiler room. Don’t call me and ask for money – ever. I do not give based on phone calls, not even to students who call from my alma mater. My giving isn’t like ordering from LL Bean. I don’t give based on one call a year.

3. Don’t make your only contact with me a call or a letter asking for money. If you can’t be bothered to tell me what you do with the money or to contact me when you don’t want anything, then don’t contact me at all.

4. Don’t send me stuff. I don’t need or want stuff. I will probably die before I can use all the notepads, address labels and tiny calendars I receive.

5. Don’t send me generic anything – solicitation letters, acknowledgements for contributions (!), brochures, newsletters or annual reports addressed to “To Our Friends At”. If you can’t be bothered to find out my name, then don’t waste your money sending me anything.

6. Don’t send me a “Dear Friend” letter with “Dear Friend” crossed out and my first name written in. I don’t find that conducive to wanting to give you anything, especially if I am already a donor. Send a letter – personal – to me.

7. Don’t send a solicitation letter that thanks me generically for past gifts. Let me know you did your homework and know who I am and what I gave you last year.

8. If I’ve told you I cannot make a gift this year, say “thank you”, wish me a good evening and get off the phone. Don’t keep trying to get me to say yes. I won’t.

9. Don’t keep mailing me the same letter over and over. I didn’t respond to it. Receiving it a 2nd or 3rd time with no new information will not snare my interest or my gift.

10. if you’re going to write a personal note on my letter, then write something more meaningful than “Hope you’ll give” or something equally inane. Show/tell me something that I may not know and that addresses why you need MY gift.

11. Big news flash: I know you are only calling/sending me a letter because I live in a desireable zip code. My zip code qualifies me for nothing other than paying my mortgage every month. It has no magic connection to your mission. If you’re spending money to buy lists based on zip codes, purchasing preferences and whether or not I subscribe to the New Yorker or Martha Stewart Living, you’re wasting your time, my time and your money. My income/education/demographic are predictors of nothing that likely has anything to do with your mission or purpose.


Take off your industry hat for a moment and think about your own experience as a donor. What turns you off?

I used to be a major supporter of Lyric Opera. I had two full-series box seat subscriptions, attended gala fundraisers and made a hefty annual gift for several seasons. When my divorce began my box seats were one of the luxuries I had to say goodbye to. When I didn’t early-renew like I normally do I was bombarded with phone calls. After explaining that my financial situation had changed but that I would still purchase individual seats when they became available to non-subscribers I thought the  phone calls would stop.

Not so. They continued to a level I consider harassing. My mailbox was also filled with solicitation letters and materials from Lyric on a weekly basis. This finally irritated me so much that I asked them to remove me from their database. I love the opera. I love the Lyric! But…I haven’t made an annual gift, gone to an event or purchased seats at a single showing since.

Do you have your own examples for the Fundraising Hall of Shame? Post them in the comments!

I can’t encourage you to read the full list of answers Marc received enough – they’re invaluable insight!

(Non-Profit) Health Month: It Begins

Health Month

It’s no secret I’m a fan of foursquare. My organization, Big Love Little Hearts, ran a campaign called #100X100 last April via foursquare that raised $25,000 in 24 hours and incited significant advocacy action. That idea came out of my personal obsession with the location-based application, and my fondness for all things foursquare is also what led me to Health Month.

Before I tell you what Health Month is let me give them props for being the smartest brand using foursquare. In order to earn a badge from Health Month you have to play the game every single day for a month. If you want all four badges you have to do that for four months. That’s the longest, most consistent usage by far that any brand requires to get the goods. Kudos to Buster Benson, the brains behind Health Month (and awesome app Locavore too)!

Health Month is a new game that helps you make small changes to your health habits. I checked it out because I wanted their badges and when I saw what it was I immediately fell in love. It’s fun and whimsical. It’s not about counting calories and figuring out percentages or about cataloging your workouts – it’s about setting small goals to improve your health. I started playing in earnest last month and chose rules that revolved around taking better care of myself: early bedtimes, eating whole grains, eating enough bright vegetables, saving more money, practicing gratitude, etc…

Not long into it I thought it would be pretty cool if there was a non-profit focused version of Health Month where the rules reflected small organizational goals. I asked Buster if he would create something like that for me and he gave me the best “no” ever: he was too focused on growing Health Month right now but he’d be happy to advise and share information with any other developer who wanted to take on the project for me. So, um – if you’re a developer reading this and you think this would be a super cool project, contact me!

Since I don’t have a developer working on this yet, I tweaked my rules for February to be my own personal (Non-Profit) Health Month. Leaders of nonprofits are notoriously bad at taking time to recharge and tend to themselves. Over at 501 Mission Place I’ve talked a lot about putting on your own oxygen mask first as a leader – Health Month has been a truly effective tool to help me do so! I used my custom rule to get organization-specific with my goals and the rest ensure that I’m in top shape to lead my team and execute Big Love Little Hearts’ vision.

So what are my rules?


Health Month


  • Write a personal thank you to a past donor or sponsor 5 days a week.
  • Read a professional capacity building book for 30 minutes 5 days a week.
  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep every day.
  • Eat breakfast every day.
  • Take a multivitamin every day.
  • Walk one mile a day.
  • Meditate for 15 minutes a day.
  • Drink 3 glasses of water a day.
  • Drink no more than one diet coke a day.
  • Study Rosetta Stone French  for 20 minutes every day.
  • Relax for 30 minutes every day.
  • Eat whole grains every day.
  • Eat only organic meat, and only eat meat 5 days a week.
  • Only have processed foods one day a week.


I committed to share this particular journey as an official Health Month blogger to inspire my readers – that means YOU – to think about doing your own (Non-Profit) Health Month.

What would that look like for you and your organization? How could you take better care of yourself so that you can be a more refreshed, energized and effective leader? What small behavior change can you strive for in your organization?

Are you up for the challenge?

I’ll be blogging my progress every couple of days, but you can check out how I’m doing daily here.

The Road Less Traveled: LBS for Nonprofit Impact vs. Money

The Road Less Traveled

I’m working on my session for the NTEN’s 2011 Non-Profit Technology Conference, a panel on location-based services. As I’m preparing slides for my part of the panel, where I’ll talk about Big Love Little Hearts’ #100X100 campaign, I know that the reason this campaign received so much attention was because we raised $25,000 in 24 hours.

There’s no doubt that I’m proud of that – we were an 8 month old organization at the time. We had only entered social media a few months before, and only seriously weeks before. In fact, the entire idea was born during a late night work session 9 days before it was implemented. To raise $25,000 in 24 hours against that backdrop is plenty to be proud of.

But that’s not what I’m most proud of. I’m most proud that 1,000 people took a political action because of the campaign. That political action in April led to the desired outcome happening in September. We wanted people to express their support of pulse-oximetry as a method of screening newborns for heart defects. Their public support in adjunct with some amazing advocacy work being done by key people in the community led to Secretary Sebelius adding that screening to the National Newborn Screening Panel. This panel is the recommendation that states use to guide their own decisions regarding what tests are mandated.

The $25,000 we raised saved 12 lives. That’s fantastic. States integrating screening for heart defects as part of their mandated panel will save thousands of lives. I am so proud that our campaign played any small part in this that my eyes well up every time I think about it.

My point isn’t to brag about how super duper awesome and smart the campaign was or how we’re the bees knees because it was effective. My point is that the best use of location-based services for non-profits might not be fundraising or the engagement we hope will lead to more effective fundraising. The best use of LBS for some organizations might be to improve or increase their impact.

Yes, fundraising is what makes our programs possible so I’m not suggesting you stop focusing on how LBS or social media can help you do that better. But I am suggesting you start thinking about how it can help you do your mission better. When I look at what’s being written about location-based services in relation to non-profits and what people are asking about LBS in relation to them I don’t see this come up often. I’m definitely not the only person thinking about it but I wish there were more.

One of the panelists in my session is from Feeding America, who used location-based social driving application waze to alert waze users to food donation drop-off locations over Thanksgiving.

The American Red Cross used Foursquare to encourage people to donate blood.

Big Love Little Hearts could use Foursquare to leave tips at OB/GYN offices, maternity clothing stores or baby boutiques about congenital heart defects. Locations like that weren’t part of our #100X100 campaign because we wanted to use locations we thought would have heavy check-in traffic on a Saturday (Target, Starbucks, grocery stores, gyms, airports, etc). But if we wanted to be targeted about raising awareness and encouraging moms to talk to their doctors about what can be done to detect heart defects…well, that would be a better use of Foursquare in the long run for us.

Can you guess what I’m doing right after I finish this post?

What about you? How can your non-profit leverage LBS or other social media applications to raise impact, not just money?

Hope Is Not A Strategy


Yesterday my cause community suffered a huge and very unexpected loss in Steve Catoe, an adult congenital heart defect (CHD) survivor, outspoken advocate, blogger and in the years I’ve been in this cause space, someone who came to be a dear friend. His passing has been difficult for many in the CHD world. We want to believe that successful surgeries as a child mean a long life ahead, but we know better: sudden cardiac arrest can happen at any time for a CHD survivor. We want to hope that by the time heart kids become adults we’ll have found a cure, but hope alone is not going to make that happen.

Steve’s second to last blog post was a plea to our community: hope is not a strategy. He asked us to come up with a plan, a goal and a deadline.

I’ve been living in that mind frame myself a lot these past few months, knowing that if we don’t have a clear vision, our missions will never be anything more than a band-aid. As a result my organization is changing almost everything about our programs in 2011. Each step we take will be one step closer to a solution.

Our mission is to give lifesaving surgery to children in developing countries with heart defects, but my vision is to work myself out of job: to change the landscape so that all children with heart defects have access to the care they need no matter where they live in the world.

Do I have a plan to get there? You betcha. A measurable goal? Absolutely. A deadline? Heck yeah.

I challenge you to do the same.  What’s your vision for your cause? How will you get there? What’s your plan? What’s your goal? And most importantly – when is your deadline? (hint: “someday” and “in our lifetime” are not deadlines)

This Is Personal: Moving from Mission to Vision

My sister died 26 years ago today from an undiagnosed heart defect. In my first video blog, I talk about how that loss has moved me to change our course at Big Love Little Hearts away from that of a mission based organization to that of a vision based one, steering toward lasting solutions to the global CHD (congenital heart defect) problem.