It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

October 8, 2021

I do not live my business life with many regrets. I always try to advance the organization’s cause (otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to work for the organization). But hindsight is 20/20. We look for neat and innovative ways of raising funds (as well as awareness) in the fundraising world. But sometimes they backfire with unexpected consequences. What may have seemed like a good idea at the time, replete with honorable intentions, sometimes has the opposite effect.

A Good Idea: The Activist

The last few months saw a lot of buzz about a proposed television show on CBS called The Activist. CBS described it as “… an unprecedented series featuring six activists from around the world working to bring meaningful change to one of three urgent universal causes: health, education, and the environment. The activists will compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns, and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers, demanding action, now. The competing activists’ success is measured via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input. The hosts will guide the activists through their journey, with plenty of surprises from high-profile public figures.”

This proposed TV show garnered immediate disdain and complaints from the fundraising world. (Read here.) Some likened it to The Hunger Games, pitting worthy causes against each other in a head-to-head competition for money. Many surmised that the money the charity itself would eventually receive would pale in comparison to the money that the hosts earned. Others actually said that through this show, “capitalism killed off empathy”. Ultimately, CBS is retooling the show as a documentary, showcasing the positive outcomes of activism. At first glance, this idea of the show appealed to me — why not have philanthropy and activism more prominently profiled? But, upon further examination, I realized that the show focused on the money and not the impact. As I have said numerous times, money is merely a tool to get you from Point A to Point B. The real core is the mission.

A Good Idea: Reducing Overhead

Juxtapose The Activist with charities claiming 100% of the donations go to the cause (i.e., NO overhead). That concept is misleading. Somebody is paying the professionals to run the organization. Somebody is keeping the lights on, the website updated, and the gifts processed. These actions may appear to be noble at first (nobody wants their funds to go towards the toilet paper at an office). However, it sets up some false expectations and treats fundraising overhead like a bad thing.

Furthermore, that overhead concept (always keep the overhead as close to $0 as you can) sets up a dynamic whereby staff can be exploited, overworked and underpaid. Not quite the image that a charity wants to portray. Nobody wants to see money squandered on unnecessary expenses. Additionally, few are motivated by paying for the charity’s database system. But it is unrealistic to believe that there are no costs associated with running a charity. Being transparent about the true costs to run a charity is necessary if we are ever to break ourselves free of the ‘overhead shackle” theory.


The commonality here is that both The Activist, as well as the Overhead example can be seen as a good idea at first blush. Involving more people involved in philanthropy is a good thing, right? Showcasing charities would just raise all boats. And with respect to the Overhead issue — donors want to ensure that their heard-earned donated monies are being used judiciously.

While I believe that while these two examples show how the idea can go off the rails, it must first be taken as a positive sign. I think that everyone involved in these concepts had the best of intentions at the beginning and just lacked some deep analysis of the consequences of the actions. Today, we are all too quick to publicly lambaste and chastise others, especially on faceless social media. I’ve always maintained that it is easy to complain about a situation, but it takes true leadership to find workable solutions.

Until next week