I always wondered where the expression “it’s time to throw in the
towel” came from. You may recognize it as an old boxing term.
When defeat is inevitable, the fighter or his manager throws his
towel into the ring signifying that the fight is over. The
boxer has exhausted all opportunities to win or even reach a
stalemate and realizes it’s best to quit or surrender before more
damage is done. Remember the Rocky movies?
This saying has widespread applicability. Just some examples might
be when partners no longer see eye-to-eye, no compromise can be
achieved and it’s simply time to throw in the towel. Likewise,
there are times during dating when it just isn’t meant to be for
the couple. Every so often the same happens, sadly, in a marriage
once all means to bring the couple together have been expended, and
no happy medium is to be gotten. It may be time to throw in the
towel. It’s true in so many instances in life. The same also can be
said in the world of nonprofit fundraising.
It's not easy to admit defeat, but there are times when it’s the
best or even the only viable alternative. In my new book “Learn
From My Experiences,” I write about when things go wrong, or when
it’s time to cancel an event. There were times in my career, and in
other nonprofits that I observed or consulted with, when it was
clear that it was time to throw in the towel. Let me cite
While it never happened to me, albeit it came close once, some
nonprofits will suspend their golf tournaments because of dreadful
weather conditions. There are mitigating circumstances when the
risk of harm to a golfer playing during a lightening storm
overrides all else and it’s time to adjourn into the clubhouse to
play poker, canasta, or some other game and call it a day. Better
yet, with sufficient notice, the golf tourney can be put off to a
Every nonprofit should know when the ROI (return on the investment)
cannot be assured and it’s time to throw in the towel. In one
organization we ran annual BBQ events which should have been
relatively simple to manage. However, we did not charge a
couvert and it was up to the donors to contribute what they wished.
In some cases, the sponsorships were generous. But they were
insufficient and the income from the contributors and their many
“guests” that came to consume our food was disproportionate to the
These events also were labor-intensive which always was a “red
flag” for me. I questioned whether they were worth our time and
effort, public relations notwithstanding. In our case, they weren’t
simply BBQ’s but also were joined at the hip with an auction – both
silent and with an auctioneer – which required a serious investment
in staff time to acquire quality auction items. There was no
volunteer committee to help. So, we discontinued them.
The same held true for sports memorabilia auctions linked to our
golf events. After many years, the novelty wore off and folks no
longer were interested in this football player’s helmet or that
baseball player’s signed jersey. So, we threw in the towel on the
sports memorabilia auctions.
In August 2021, the Tampa Bay Times ran a story on a grander
scale about a Florida nonprofit and its foundation that closed
because the former CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic
Violence defrauded the state and federal government “by
manipulating her board of directors to pad her salary in a scheme
that gave her more than $7.5 million over three years.” No choice
but to throw in the towel!
Unrealistic goals are another reason when it’s time to throw in the
towel. I produced many major concerts and projected revenue and
expenses to determine their cost-benefit well in advance of the
event. Fortunately, they were worth the time and effort. However,
like rock bands often known as “one hit” pop groups, I am familiar
with organizations who went the concert route and then threw in the
towel after only one event when they learned that the ROI simply
wasn’t there. They learned the hard way.
One more example to the point of this essay. There is a chapter in
my book titled “Yes, Fundraising is a Team Sport.” Like the
military, teamwork is essential to get the job done. No
better example is the work of Navy SEALs whose close collaboration
is integral to the success of a mission. In the same way, teamwork
is essential to the success of a major fundraising project. If it
falls on the shoulders of only a select few then it may be time to
throw in the towel.
Otto Graham, the legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback, once
proclaimed, “Do not throw in the towel, use it for wiping the sweat
off your face.” He was optimistic, of course. That may hold true
for a football game, but, face it, there are times when it doesn’t
make sense. Besides, as another adage goes,
“Sometimes I feel like throwing in the towel. But you know what
that means…more laundry.”
About the author:
Norman B. Gildin is the author of the recently released book on
nonprofit fundraising “Learn From My Experiences.” He is the
President of Strategic Fundraising Group whose singular mission is
to assist nonprofits raise critical funds for their organization.
His website is at www.normangildin.com.