Commentary: Charity Is Not A Dirty Word

A good many of us have a hard time thinking clearly without that morning mug filled with coffee but apparently my brain was more addled than usual the other day. It was far too early to be awake, so I dreamed of stopping for a cup of java on the way to the office only to be greeted in the most unusual of ways.

“Good morning!” said the barista. “Welcome to Door County Coffee & Tea. We are not a petting zoo.”

Then as I looked across Door County Coffee’s parking lot, I imagined a new promotional video for another iconic business on our peninsula. The camera entered through the doors, cinematically panned around the rows of merchandise, then a deep movie-style voiceover said, “In a world of darkness, there’s Door County Candle, where we don’t sell bowling trophies.”

Maybe it would have been more realistic had I dreamed of yet another classic Door County business simply creating a new tag line to describe itself. “Main Street Market. Not Miniature Golf.”

Clearly, before that first cup of coffee in the morning, the absurdities can abound. After all, what kind of industry would so foolishly try to define itself by what it is not. That’s a preposterous way to differentiate yourself and does nothing to inspire someone to frequent your business.

In other words, it’s just plain dumb. Yet for some ludicrous reason that I cannot quite fathom, the charities of our nation continue to insist on defining themselves by what they are not.

These well-meaning folks of charity traditionally refer to their institutions as “nonprofit organizations.” Then one day some marketing “genius” decided that every charity should henceforth rebrand itself as a “not-for-profit corporation.” However, if you’re employed at a trendy, truly cutting edge nonprofit, you now tell people that you work for a “nongovernmental organization.”

Wow. Consider me inspired and motivated to give.

Of course, most of the time when we ask someone where they work, they simply say the name of their employer, be it the “Just in Time Corporation” or the “United Way.” Yet we never hear those in the former category tell us that they are a “for-profit business” the way the latter groups often describe themselves as a “nonprofit organization.”

For years I’ve referred to my employer, the Door County Community Foundation, and other organizations like it, as “charities.” Yet I’m still amazed at the often viscerally negative reaction of others in this field when I refer to their work the same way.

“I don’t work for charity,” I’ve been told in varying forms by colleagues over the years. “I work for a not-for-profit corporation.” It’s as if only by dehumanizing our work, by making it sound more institutional and transactional, that it achieves a level of gravitas.

The chief executive of one local nonprofit quietly confessed to me that they don’t like the term “charity” because it implies their organization is “dependent” on its donors. The irony of course is that this person’s employer is absolutely dependent on its donors. Only they don’t like to admit out of fear that it might somehow diminish the organization’s legitimacy.

This all strikes me as patently absurd. Even such gigantic institutions as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital have one thing in common – each has a really big button at the top of its website inviting you to make a charitable donation. No matter how much earned revenue charitable corporations like these make in ticket sales or hospital bills, they would be a mere shell of the treasures they have become without charitable gifts. They unequivocally are dependent upon the generosity of others.

If 501(c)(3) public charities could pay for all their operations just by selling their services, some smart entrepreneur would have figured that out and already be doing our job. We are charities precisely because we need the people of our community to come together in support of our mission. In other words, we charitable organizations are dependent on the charitable giving of others.

Merriam-Webster defines “charity” as “benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity,” or as an “institution supported by such gifts.” If you ponder for a moment what that truly means it’s easy to see real beauty in those words.

I’m not interested in working for an organization that exists “not” to do something – be it not to make a profit or not to be government. I want to work for an organization that defines itself by what it is – an institution of goodwill and love of humanity. I want to serve a charity that brings us together as a community to help each other through wonderful acts of generosity.

Every April I have the responsibility of presenting a 90-minute annual “state of the foundation” to the community foundation’s Board of Directors. During this spring’s presentation I noted that during the last four years alone, the Community Foundation was blessed to receive charitable donations of $16,087,561 from the remarkably generous people of our community. The majority of these contributions are then invested in endowment funds so the principal will last forever. Those investments helped generate an incredible $5,041,610 that was distributed to support charitable work right here in Door County.

I work for the Door County Community Foundation. It is a charity. It’s a charity precisely because it is completely dependent on the continuing friendship and generosity of people like you.

Bret Bicoy is president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].

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