A third of Americans have little or no confidence in charitable organizations. That’s according to a poll out earlier this month from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Many of those surveyed felt that leaders of charities were paid too much and that the organizations were not good at spending the money they received very wisely. (On the bright side, charities still outranked public schools, big business, organized labor, and, of course, Congress.)
In order to combat the poor image of nonprofits, the Chronicle asked various experts for suggestions. The results were as silly as they were predictable. Susan McPherson, a communications consultant specializing in corporate responsibility, suggests that “charity rating groups came together and, instead of competing, put out a State of the Union about the hundreds of thousands of ways the nonprofit sector enhances our daily lives.” She suggests “an annual conference and an annual report” to document all this. Because what the public needs are more annual reports.
When the Chronicle asked Senator Charles Grassley “what nonprofits owe the public,” he replied “Everything.”
While it’s true that nonprofits are bound by tax laws, the idea that they “owe” something to the public (beyond the people who actually fund them) is debatable. What matters is not whether every American or even a majority have confidence in charities, but whether the individuals that the organizations serve think they are doing a good job and whether the people who are donating to them agree. Indeed, while the staffs of big foundations and academics who study philanthropy are always coming up with a new scheme about how to cull charities whose missions overlap or how charities should submit to more government regulation, the truth is that we don’t need to have more faith in charities as a whole. Unlike, say, members of Congress, charities don’t need to work together to get things done.
It is not surprising that more people had faith in local charities than in national ones. Nonprofits that are nearby are more likely understand and address the problems that people are experiencing, says David Weekley, who won the $250,000 William E. Simon Prize in Philanthropy recently. Whether it’s in government or business or the nonprofit sector, “the best work is done on lowest level, closest to the people.” Weekley is a big believer in the concept of “subsidiarity” and he thinks that the national philanthropies—the ones based in New York or Washington—suffer from too much bureaucracy.
Weekley made his fortune in construction. Based in Houston, he owns the largest privately held homebuilding company in the nation. His business has had its ups and downs. Thanks to fluctuations in the housing market, he was a millionaire by age 30, then broke a few years later, and now he is able to give away several million dollars each year. But he is not content to just write checks. He wants to see up close what an organization is doing. Whether that means supporting organizations like KIPP Academies, the charter network with schools in Houston, or Christian summer camps or the Boy Scouts, Weekley wants to make sure his money is being used effectively. (His foundation will also “sunset” after his death.)
Weekley tries to give his treasure and his time—he donates half of his salary and half of his working hours each year—to nonprofits that operate on a kind of franchise model. The Boy Scouts, for instance, have a few hundred different 501c3s. So does the YMCA. When there is a local board, Weekley says, “there is local ownership and control.”
Nonprofit leaders often seek Weekley’s advice on how to scale their models. He advises them to give up control to people on the local level. “It’s tough to do but if you’re really mission driven that’s the most effective way to get your organization built.” He’s been working recently with something called the Positive Coaching Alliance—a kind of anti-hockey dad organization—that helps to teach kids (and sometimes parents) about the importance of character while they are playing sports. Weekley has helped the organization grow from a small group to one with 14 chapters, serving a million kids. Because there are so many kids already involved in youth sports, “the distribution model is already there. They just have to overlay the character part.”