It’s time to think differently about charities — and the way the meetings industry supports them.
As the number of meetings that incorporate charitable components into their programs continues to grow, so does the overall impact that the meetings industry has on the $1.5-trillion philanthropy industry. And that would seem to be all for the positive. But if meetings can magnify the good that charities do, they also can magnify their flaws.
And many charitable organizations fall woefully short, former National Public Radio (NPR) CEO Ken Stern writes in his recently published book, With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give. Among other things, Stern writes, the charity sector lacks sufficient government oversight: The IRS approves 99.5 percent of all applications, and once established, charities — which number more than one million in the United States — rarely die. And there is a lack of industry-wide standards when it comes to measuring a charity’s results. From water charities intended to improve life in Africa to drug-education programs run by police officers in U.S. schools, many organizations raise and spend millions of dollars without making a dent in the problems they set out to solve.
So what’s a well-intentioned meeting planner to do? The good news is that there is a movement toward finding new ways to add greater accountability and effectiveness to the nonprofit world. At the same time, meeting professionals are recognizing that, with proper research and planning, they can ensure that their groups’ giving-back efforts make the biggest impact possible. Convene spoke with Stern, National Philanthropic Trust CEOEileen Heisman, and Claire Smith, CMP, vice president of sales and marketing for the Vancouver Convention Centre and board liaison to PCMA’s CSR Task Force, about what it takes for the meetings industry to truly make a difference for those in need.
FIRST, DEFINE SUCCESS
Most meeting planners work with nonprofit partners when creating charitable programs. But you can’t assume that just because a charity is in the “good-making business,” it’s doing good, Stern said. It’s very difficult, he said, to assess the real, long-term impact that a charity has on the people it seeks to help — frequently even for the charities themselves.
A first step for nonprofit organizations, he said, is to come up with a responsible way to define success. One of Stern’s most frustrating experiences at NPR was when he’d go into a board meeting and the group would spend the day talking about measuring success. “There’d be 25 different definitions of success. It turns out it’s really easy to be successful when you get to change your definition of success,” Stern said. “It’s really important that you get a consensus measurement and you stick to it, because that allows for stakeholders to — not necessarily agree or disagree with the measurement of success — but to measure your actions against it and to know whether you’re moving in the right direction. Otherwise, people are making things up as they go along.”
‘We just sort of assume that because people are trying to do good, they are doing good. That's actually not the case. That suggests — and this is actually the hard part of the conversation — that a lot of money is going to things that aren't making an impact. A lot of time, effort, and good intentions are going into those things. We need to redirect those efforts to things that actually matter and make differences to society and people's lives.’ - Ken Stern
Unfortunately, most charities don’t spell out how they define success. There are some markers that charities make available, such as how long they’ve been around, how stable they are financially, and their long-term prospects, Stern said. “All that usually can be gotten through publicly available data,” he said. “I would say if the organization is not making that data available on its website in a transparent way, I would be careful about them.”
But if you try to dig deeper, Stern said, you’ll find that few charities are transparent on their website about their goals, how they measure themselves, and how they’re doing against those goals. “Those are all, to me, indicators of very good, positive, forward-looking organizations,” Stern said, “and you’d be shocked at how few actually do that.”
There are only a handful of third-party resources that do investment-grade research to help in evaluating charities, Stern said. Among them are Give Well, New Profit, and Charity Navigator.
And although planners should “absolutely” ask for metrics and proof of results, it’s often not reasonable to request that those metrics be customized to individual donors, cautions Heisman, whose National Philanthropic Trust is one of the top 25 grant-making institutions in the United States. “If you are giving smaller amounts, do not force the charity to do complicated metrics just for you, because you are basically burning up your money, plus more,” she said. “A lot of people want all these complicated outcome measurements, but they are only giving a gift of $5,000. It costs a lot to generate metrics. [Say] a staff person is paid $50,000 a year. You need 50 $1,000 donors to pay for a person to do program evaluation. And then you complain that you do not like overhead.”
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. IT’S ABOUT THEM.
It’s human nature that we’re quicker to give our dollars and our time to those charities that tug at our heartstrings, rather than those that present hard, cold facts about their results — however compelling those facts might be. But virtually every charity can tell a good story or it wouldn’t be in business, Stern said. Focusing on the emotional storyline is “really about resonating with the donor,” he said, and “the wrong way to think about it. Part of the cultural change needs to be about helping the intended stakeholders of the activity. And really, we all shouldn’t feel very good about it if we aren’t helping people who are hungry or homeless or need education or jobs and having a long-term impact on their lives. Until we actually change that conversation from a conversation that makes donors feel good to a conversation about what is the actual impact that these charities have, I think it’s going to be very difficult for charities to really prosper and make a difference.”
Thinking with greater intention about the actual beneficiaries of groups’ community-service work is something that the PCMA CSR Task
Force has been wrestling with, Smith said. When making decisions around CSR events, planners need to keep “the needs of the community in the foreground rather than sort of as an afterthought,” she said. “We’ve been talking about how we can help encourage meeting planners to think differently about many aspects of their [CSR] event. Because I think, number one, we want to do good, but we are really almost lazy about it. We want to feel good that we have done something, but we actually do not want to get our hands that dirty. And we want an activity that is fun.... So we are going to build bicycles for a school, and that is really lovely, but do those kids really need bicycles? And we are doing it almost like a team-building activity. So it is more really about us than it is about them. I think what we really need to be leery of is giving people things they don’t need. And I think that we do it because it’s easy, and it feels good. But if people don’t need that, then it really is tokenism.”
Adding to the challenge of a meeting group’s ability to