“Charity” Shouldn’t Have to Mean “Cheap”

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

I speak in metaphors a lot. My wife hates it. But bear with me, please.

Let’s say you love basketball. You’re 6’ 7” with some semblance of coordination (that’d be cool, wouldn’t it?). Maybe you played in high school and even played a little bit on your college team.

Now someone asks you to take part in a “Charity” basketball tournament. What are your expectations?

You likely start picturing a watered down version of the basketball you’re used to playing. The referees are probably inexperienced — looking the other way when it comes to enforcing double dribbles. Maybe there’s not even referees at all. Scoreboard? Not here. This is for charity so “everyone wins.”

You’re envisioning a game that’s not nearly as competitive as you’d prefer because to you (and most everyone else), “charity” means “cheap,” or at least the lowest common denominator.

Do you say yes to this game? Probably not.

There’s an unfortunate expectation in the world of nonprofits that once something is given the Scarlett C of “charity” it means that it’s a dumbed down version of what we’d all hope it could be. It means sourcing the cheapest solution because a charity couldn’t possibly pay top (or even middle) dollar for anything, right?

This is a topic near and dear to my heart when it comes to charity events, since I host charitable Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, but this misconception is often applied to any and all aspects of a nonprofit’s business.

The list goes on and on. The worst part is when people assume these are true and don’t give a nonprofit a chance. It means the best talents aren’t sending their resumes to nonprofits or potential fundraising attendees are opting for a different event (thus, we lose their participation and their potential fundraising power).

The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win. — Seth Godin

Don’t get me wrong, nonprofits have a fiduciary responsibility to spend their money as effectively and efficiently as possible. But the expectation to be cheap or frugal can suffocate a nonprofit’s ability to provide an experience that is memorable and keeps the customer (or employee, or partner, or vendor) coming back for more. Many nonprofits are competing against for-profit entities (all of them are when it comes to hiring) and the experience matters.

At Tap Cancer Out we host charitable Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, and while we have a unique value proposition in that our events are raising funds for cancer-fighting organizations and serving a greater good, that doesn’t mean our tournaments can provide a worse experience than our for-profit counterparts. In fact, I recently railed against the the BJJ tournament that suck (and know, and don’t care).

We’re often hosting our tournament on the same day and in the same area as another (for-profit) tournament, and competitors can only attend one, so they have to weight the pros and cons of each. If they opt for the other tournament, we lose them for the entire year (since we only visit a city once a year).

We fail if our:

If any of these are true, the following year competitors don’t return, divisions become less compelling, and our events become unsustainable. Essentially, we go out of business.

But hey, at least we kept costs down, right?

Scalability is important here too. I’m not encouraging nonprofits to break the bank or spend money they don’t have. Our first event cost us about 10% of what our events cost us to run now (that event fundraises 15x more now though). We borrowed wrestling mats and taped off the rings with painters tape. I literally threw my teammates onto the mats to referee. Not a single staff member or volunteer was paid. The medals were tiny. I can’t even recall if we had an awards banner or signage of any kind.

But that’s not sustainable. We got the pass because it was our first tournament ever, but unless the experience improved, competitors wouldn’t have returned. I never took their support for granted, and I never wanted to get a “pass” again.

Each year we invest in the experience. Soon thereafter we had a special fundraiser to buy our own mats. We made bigger medals. Hired better qualified (paid) staff. I’ve always scaled appropriately, but never with the sole focus of bottoming out our costs. Everything had to have an ROI of some sorts (even if it was just to ensure we were keeping up with the Joneses).

Experience matters. Nonprofits face all the same challenges and expectations that for-profit companies do, except we’re held to a much different fiduciary standard. If we want to change the world for the better, the cheapest way isn’t going to get us there. Let’s race to the top.