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The Philanthropist's New Leather Pants: How to Blow Your Charity's Street Cred

Perceptions are everything, especially in public relations, and the last thing we fundraising professionals can afford to lose is the credibility of our charities.

Case in point: Some embarrassing numbers swirling around U2 singer Bono’s ONE charitable foundation.

The word is that of the 9.6 million pounds (roughly $15 million) that ONE received in donations during 2008, it has paid out only 118,000 pounds (roughly $185,000) in charitable disbursements. That works out to about 1.2%.

What’s worse, 5.1 million pounds (about $8 million) went to paying ONE’s 120 staff members’ salaries. Our rough-and-ready calculations say that’s about 53% of the total.

1.2% for good works versus 53% for the staff. That’s the story.

ONE spokespeople say the organization’s purpose was never to make direct handouts to the needy. It fights poverty in Africa and AIDS throughout the world by campaign promotion and consciousness-raising. Britain’s Daily Mail quotes Oliver Buston of ONE as saying, “We don’t provide programmes on the ground. We’re an advocacy and campaigning organization.”

Turns out most of ONE’s money came from Bill Gates. But that’s not the point.

Our charities may not be as high-profile as ONE, but the same principles apply. For our purposes as fundraisers, the important moral to be derived from this brouhaha involves organizational credibility. Your nonprofit’s ability to motivate donors depends upon its credibility as a charity. If donors don’t believe you’re doing good work with their money, if you don’t emphasize the real good they will do, they won’t be donors anymore.

So manage your creds carefully.

As for ONE: Will its strong celebrity and pop-culture appeal manage to counterbalance the bad smell rising from these revelations? Stay tuned.

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