Salvatore Alaimo: We don’t need common belief to drive philanthropy


SalAlaimoDr. Salvatore Alaimo is a professor of nonprofit management at Grand Valley State University in Michigan specializing in the study of volunteerism and philanthropy. Dr. Alaimo will present at the Humanism at Work conference on the role of philanthropy in American life, the subject of his forthcoming documentary What Is Philanthropy?

Much of your research involves effective nonprofit management. What do you think are the biggest mistakes that nonprofits make that damage their ability to achieve their goals?
One of the biggest mistakes they make is in the well-intended quest to appear to be fiscally responsible, they reduce their administrative, or “overhead,” costs too low. In doing so, they often administratively starve their programs into ineffectiveness. Another is they do not engage enough in consuming the existing body of research they can tap into for recommended practices, effective programming, and the latest findings for their particular service delivery. Another is that resource dependency pulls them into constantly scrambling for the next dollar, to the point that other areas of nonprofit management get neglected. Lastly, one of those areas that typically gets ignored is risk management, which is so critical to the survival of the organization and the safety and wellbeing of its stakeholders, especially its consumers.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions you think people have when they get into nonprofit management?
I think there are several misconceptions. One is simply coming into the work with what I would describe as a “save the world” mentality, good intentions and lots of energy. This attitude can get jaded or broken when people realize they’re operating in an economically and politically volatile environment. Another is that nonprofits culturally don’t operate as businesses. While this may still be true for some, more and more are having to operate like businesses by engaging in social enterprise to generate new revenue streams or become more bottom-line oriented in their programming. Many of the larger nonprofits, including hospitals, are forced to operate like businesses in order to exist in their environments. Lastly, many people still think you can’t earn a living in the field and that is simply not true. The nonprofit sector now employs approximately 10% of our country’s workforce. Salaries are still below those of for-profits, but they have come up a bit and the gaps have been closed a little.

If you were giving advice to someone who is deciding which nonprofit to donate their money to, what are the primary factors they should be concerned with?
Primary factor number one should be how effective the organization’s program(s) is. Who wants to throw away their money at something that is not transforming the lives of the consumers it serves? The second factor should be how fiscally responsible the organization is. Are they wasteful or are they good stewards of resources? Look up their 990 tax return on GuideStar, ask for their annual report, etc. Third, do you believe in the cause you are donating to? What do you expect to feel, receive, etc. from the exchange relationship of your donation?

In a talk you gave in Grand Rapids last year, you featured Foundation Beyond Belief’s founder and executive director, Dale McGowan, fairly prominently. What does the Foundation do that you think is helping us be effective?
The Foundation is demonstrating the power of secular humanists in contributing to society. While faith and religion have long been a major influence in giving in the United States, the fact remains that we don’t need religion or the belief in a higher being to help others and contribute to society. I would add that the Foundation is also demonstrating through collaborative efforts with faith-based organizations that there does not have to be the common belief to drive this work but just the common desire and ground to improve our society.

What kinds of things do you think the humanist community can do to expand its philanthropic reach?
I think the humanist community should, ironically, look to the faith-based community and learn how and why they are able to still garner the lion’s share of philanthropic giving. The research tells us repeatedly it’s not the belief in a higher being that is primarily driving this, but instead a sense of community they get from attending their place of worship. I think if the humanist community closely examines the faith-based process they can incorporate some of those aspects into building their community and engaging more people in giving.

To see Dr. Alaimo and the rest of our fantastic slate of speakers, register now for the Humanism at Work conference, July 18-20 in Chicago.