An old saying goes, “If you want to know what’s important to someone, take a look at their checkbook.” I’m not sure the saying goes far enough.

Take the year-end fund-raising season.  These days, many non-profits come looking of money, flooding our mailboxes, emails, and airwaves with pleas – or that twisted bit of English, “asks.” Non-profits need money to stay alive for another year/quarter/month.

But to thrive, non-profits need engagement from an enthusiastic network of supporters.  And to gauge where we’re truly invested, we probably shouldn’t look at our checkbooks. We should look at our calendars.  Money is relatively cheap.  You can make more. Yes, each of us has a level of financial contribution that would make us catch our breath. But we rarely approach that – instead giving what is “comfortable” for us.

Time is another matter. Everyone gets exactly the same amount.  By definition, it’s scarce.  And when you’re as busy as most of us are, engaging – really engaging – with a cause or a company or whatever… well, now we’re talking about giving something precious.

How do the best non-profits do this? Here are my unscientific observations.  Feel free to add yours:

  • They unabashedly call people to something larger than themselves. “Help us change the world” is more compelling than “Help us pay our bills.”
  • They remain true to their core purpose in their decisions so that participants trust them. They’re internally consistent.
  • They provide many ways to be involved beyond a donation.  They know that people who have an experience will always become activists. Those who write a check become donors.
  • They create community. Relationships and caring and authenticity draw people in better than slick campaigns.
  • They appeal to our best sides (hope, service, nobility) instead of the cheap shortcuts (guilt, shame, and obligation).

Come to think of it, these are traits of every great organization, whether for profit or for the common good.  What can you rip off the best non-profits and put into play in your sphere of influence?