The legitimacy of a venture in the pursuit of its cause is inextricably intertwined with the nature of its funding. In a very real sense, the degree of autonomy we have in making our decisions is determined by the commitments embedded in our sources of funding; our degree of autonomy is our measure of legitimacy. It will be impossible to affect real change in a given area without manifest legitimacy in the eyes of those whom the change is affecting. In short, the optics are tied to the operations.
In attempting to codify a measure of legitimacy, the immediate metaphor that comes to mind is from the infamous Taleb – one of fragility and antifragility. As volatility grows, the antifragile entity grows; the fragile entity weakens in the face of growing volatility. With this in mind, the legitimacy of the pursuit of a cause grows in proportion to the number of genuine sources of revenue – any enterprise with a single source of funding, a single donor, should necessarily appear questionable in the eyes of those whom the cause affects. In such situations the donor appears as lord and the venture as vassal – an easily perceived hand beneath a well-fitting glove. The clarifying word genuine is mentioned before sources of funding because it’s too easy for a single source of funds to optically magnify its presence through proxies and fronts, where a common interest pervades the many heads of a single hydra.
The implication of this chain of logic is that non-profits, or any such entities pursuing a cause, should have their own revenue streams beyond hand-outs from donors. This may appear counter-intuitive yet it’s this very insight that sparked the domain of social entrepreneurship with the tripartite goal of people, planet, and profit. A cause-pursuing organization without its own sources of revenue is really just a marketing department – anyone free of hypocrisy would acknowledge that. It is only by becoming a financially self-sustaining entity that a cause-pursuing entity can truly call itself an organization – one that can stand on its own two feet and walk without the influence of puppet strings.
The next logical thought would be to inquire as to how such a feat of financial independence can be achieved. The low hanging fruit would be around the core competencies of cause-pursuing entities in the realms of content creation, event production, and education. These entities are frequently writing up white papers and blog posts; hosting conferences and seminars; teaching workshops and courses. Within those activities are the foundation from which some monetizable elements can emerge. Some entities will use content as the lead generation but monetize the events and education; alternatively, the in-person experiences can be free in order to sell quality content. Beyond that core, it is the context of the problem space that will determine what the other revenue opportunities will be. We can imagine various niche services that only a non-profit will be able to offer given its exposure to a given problem space.
It is in having sustainable business operations informed by multiple revenue streams that a cause-pursuing venture will have the legitimacy to speak about and to affect its desired domain. Above all, the constituency affected by change wants to know that the intentions and interests underlying said change are aligned with their own interests and, moreover, that of the domain in question. An entity without independence – especially financial independence – has no legitimacy in affecting change and can make no claim to the throne of catalysis. In our heart of hearts, we know which category we belong to. When the curtains close on the theatre of worldly affairs, it is we who must live with our actions – whether they were our own or purchased by others.