Why “You’re Doing It Wrong,” Is Wrong

Financial journalist Felix Salmon, recently wrote an opinion piece for Reuters entitled, “Philanthropy:  You’re Doing It Wrong.”  The blog is worth a read, if only because it clearly articulates wrong-headed concepts about how best to engage philanthropists.

Allow me to highlight Salmon’s thesis as best I understand it.  He is criticizing the “mega-philanthropists:  the people who give away millions of dollars and feel fantastic for doing so” for how they give away their money.  In fact he lists 11 problems associated with these ultra-rich donors.  Speaking directly to wealthy donors, he states:

  1. You meddle in the internal workings of the charities you donate to, even though you’re not on the board.
  2. You set up your own foundation.
  3. You give your money to Harvard, or any other large endowment.
  4. You fund architecture.
  5. You encourage mission creep.
  6. You kid yourself that your mere presence on the board, or your “celebrity endorsement”, is valuable.
  7. You’re a tease.
  8. You confuse philanthropy with social climbing.
  9. You think that going to charity balls constitutes charitable activity.
  10. You put your name on a building, or anything else, for that matter.
  11. You transactionalize your giving.

I won’t attempt to work through each of Salmon’s supposed transgressions individually.  Instead, I’ll make 3 observations about his list and the thinking behind it.

  • First, throughout his piece, Salmon clearly communicates his sense that the ultra-rich donor should be viewed (and should allow themselves to be viewed) as a check-book.  Not as full and complete humans with ideas, opinions, and feedback.  But as a funding source.  Don’t “meddle,” don’t “encourage mission creep,” etc., are just other ways of saying, “you are valuable fundamentally because of your money and you should give it to charitable organizations quietly.”  This disposition is both poisonous and wrong-headed in that you won’t raise significant gifts if you treat people this way – even the mega-rich, after all, are people.  We should be asking people for their advice and counsel.  We should be listening.  We should be inclusive and flexible in our planning.  We should value people as full human beings.  Not only is such an approach more ethical, imbued with better manners, and more gracious, it also is much more effective.  The term “donor engagement,” has never meant only engaging with their money.  Should donors “meddle?”  Of course not!  But in my experience, the reason most donors meddle where they shouldn’t is because they want to “do something,” and the institution isn’t engaging them!  I don’t know anyone who enjoys sitting in meetings as a volunteer and having reports fed to them constantly without any real generative or strategic discussion.  As oxymoronic as it sounds, the way to stop meddling is to give people something to do.
  • Second, Salmon seems to think that someone, other than the donor ultimately, should decide how and where to give.  His suggestions not to fund “architecture” or “put your name on a building,” would be amusing, if the advice wasn’t so bad.  Naming a building or funding a program with restrictions can be a strong signal to other prospective donors that your institution is worthy of investment and is advancing forward in meaningful ways.  In addition to being an attractive way to encourage giving, naming a building, for instance, can be viewed as the ultimate endorsement of your institution or program.  Each day I work with institutions that are in need of new facilities.  They plan for new facilities strategically and include them as funding opportunities.  I’m not sure I understand the concern when a donor’s interest aligns with an institution’s mission and vision.  And what if the donor wants to fund a building or something else that doesn’t align with your institution’s mission, vision, or values?  Isn’t it our jobs, as development professionals, to better understand the donor’s underlying interests and creatively attempt to advance a gift proposal that both meets the institution’s goals as well as the donors?  Certainly, I’ve been a part of giving opportunities that have been turned down because the institution couldn’t come to a clear understanding of how the gift would advance the mission.  The institution is not being forced to take all gifts.
  • Finally, Salmon slams these donors for “transactionalizing” their giving and for confusing “going to charity balls with charitable activity.”  This rebuke, I would suggest, is wrongly placed.  We shouldn’t blame donors when our institutions are the ones holding these charitable balls, silent auctions, and other non-mission-oriented events and encouraging transactional giving.  Did you send those personalized address labels in with your  end of calendar year direct mail solicitation?  While you believe they were the key to your success, you also must realize you just reinforced the notion that giving to your institution is a transaction.  We can’t offer transactional giving opportunities to donors and then lament the fact that donors are viewing philanthropy as a transaction.  Until we, as development professionals, fully embrace and believe that giving in support of mission, vision, and values, is what is good, right, and helpful for both the giver and the receiver, we will regularly walk down the path of transactional giving.  It’s easier, it’s quicker, and if we don’t believe that giving is good for the donor, it makes us feel more comfortable being a fundraiser.

Our work is to educate and fully engage people – whether “rich” or not – in the mission, vision, and values of our institutions.  Our best outcomes occur when we are mission-centric and treat donors as whole humans, with opinions and perspectives that just may help us fulfill our mission better.  We live in the most charitable of times.  Leaders of educational, healthcare, and charitable organizations should never fool themselves into thinking they have all the answers.  And in an era where government funding, at all levels, is receding, the idea of blaming donors seems to be misguided at best.

1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this; our counseling center sees similar issues and it is valuable information! It is a challenge sometime to deal with wealthy people for just the reasons you mentioned.

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