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When It's Time to Throw in the Towel

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 some examples.

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 “Rain Date.”

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 expenses.

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