Nonprofit Law Resource Library
International Philanthropy & NGOs
Lessons from America
I see it in their eyes, the eyes of UK charity executives, when they first talk to me about the possibility of raising funds in the US.
Some of them may have seen a recent statistic, say that £94bn was given to charity in the US last year. Or that £6.5bn was given to arts and culture.
More likely, they are simply prone to one of the great myths of the second half of this millennium: that there is wealth in America simply waiting to be plucked from the trees or picked up off the pavement. And that the only essential requirement is hiring a galleon large enough to load the gold and get it back to the London docks.
But of course it can't be that easy. Even the early Spanish settlers had to 'persuade' the Indians to produce gold! A fundraising programme in the US needs everything required for a UK campaign: organizational mission, programme goals, project methods, realistic budgeting and comprehensive income strategies.
And then it needs something more: a strong reason why Americans ought to make a charitable gift in another country.
Of course, a few charities can succeed by appealing to the small pockets of anglophiles on the East Coast. But more than that, a profound connection is needed in a programme, including where it is based.
Perhaps it's famine relief, or an international species conservation effort, or medical research of worldwide impact. Merely having a need in the UK and seeing charitable dollars in the US is not good enough.
And even then, there are further challenges. Language is one: just imagining that we actually understand one another is dangerous. For example in accounting, American 'overhead' is very different from British 'overheads'.
Culture is another danger: American foundation officers exert far more influence on proposals than their British counterparts.
But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is appreciating the sheer boggling size of America’s land and the number of its people. When living, as I do, in Boston, New England, and I am asked if I know someone in San Francisco, I have to remind people that San Francisco is three times the distance from me in Boston that London is from Rome.
And then there are around 260 million people, supporting over 600,000 charities. A fundraising campaign, even to a small segment of individuals, foundations or corporations, takes time and lots of money.
A UK charity entering the US philanthropic market is competing in the richest society on earth, which means major operating costs. No doubt the charitable dollars are there, billions of them. But capturing those dollars is a substantial enterprise - which I shall discuss in future columns.