Sunday, July 15, 2012

Charities: The Model of Efficiency?

As governments at all levels decrease support of the charities and non-profits I see both risk and some potential for positive impact on these sectors. However, for the record I believe that strategically guided government funding provides unique efficiencies that no other amount of individual or corporate giving can match.  By its very nature the gifts of individuals and corporations are guided by their unique scope, which is unlikely to be as encompassing as that of government.  For the same reason that schools and roads are deemed public goods and thus funded through taxes, I argue that some degree of government / tax funded support is required to support the public good delivered by way of charities and non-profits. The real debate is how much of these good works should be funded by - if you will - forced donations through the use of taxes.

This debate is informed at least in part by the argument that for-profit businesses are more efficient than charities and non-profits. Certainly that was the case made recently page 9 of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Small Business by Catherine Swift of the CFIB. Her suggestions that reduced government support to charities will result in greater small and medium size business donations is plausible and may actually prove true.  While this doesn't mitigate my concern over sufficient funding for the best organizations guided by a broad strategic view, she also highlights the “more efficient” private sector.

And on that front I argue that the most efficient model is often already found in the charitable and non-profit world.  I’m not suggesting that learnings can’t be found in the for profit world, but here’s why many charities already win on the efficiency front:

  1. Charities and non-profits leverage volunteers – this keeps costs down and multiplies the effectiveness of the organization
  2. Charities and non-profits generally pay less for talent and staff than their for profit peers, and have a reputation for passion and commitment from these same staffers
  3. Charities and non-profits by their very definition don’t seek profit – this eliminates a “middleman” who desires maximum profit as opposed to maximum impact, which increases efficiency
So while I would welcome increased support by small and medium sized business with or without decreased government support, I also hope we won’t confuse this with a sign that these same generous donors are by their nature more efficient than the recipients. The learnings around efficiency can actually flow both ways.

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