A Giving Revival

A wonderful benefit of my work as a consultant is the opportunity I have to interview some of the wealthiest and most generous individuals in North America.  I ask questions about their philanthropy – where they give, why they give, and how much they give.  I listen to their life’s stories.  And I attempt to better understand what positive impact they desire to make in this world.   When I engage with an individual or couple who embrace an ethos of giving, I am almost always inspired by their stories (yes, most achieved their wealth during their lifetimes), and come away with a renewed sense of faith in humanity’s goodness and magnanimity.

But recently, I have interviewed a few individuals who haven’t embraced a philosophy of giving so completely.  They maintain a more rigid and self-interested worldview.  They speak about what they don’t have as opposed to what they do have. They don’t view themselves as financially blessed.  And, simply put, they don’t evidence a generous spirit.  Let me offer two recent anecdotes:

I interviewed a private higher education governing board member of financial means who said to me, “My gift is my service on the board.  And I give a lot of time to this institution.”

I interviewed a public higher education foundation board member (again of means) who said, “My spouse and I believe that paying our taxes is our giving.  With 40% of our income being taxed, do you realize how many people we support each year?”

These sorts of sentiments are troubling, and I fear they are becoming more commonplace – at least my sense is that I’m hearing these types of perspectives more often.  They are troubling not only because they portend a future that is more egotistical, self-centered, and less supportive and caring of others.  But also because a life lived without practicing the discipline of generosity is more hollow and less enjoyable.  Science is proving to us what our religious traditions have taught forever – that giving is good for us.  We are wired to give.  The giver truly does receive more benefit than the receiver.  The more we adopt a self-centered perspective on life, the more we forego all of the personal benefits that come with acting generously. 

Advancement professionals talk almost endlessly about building and strengthening the “culture of philanthropy” in our institutions, whatever that means.  I’m convinced, though, that we are missing a bigger, more important point.  Building culture is a rather unhelpful concept.  It’s nebulous and complex.  It’s impersonal.  And no one really owns culture building.  So, instead of focusing on building a culture of philanthropy, I would suggest that we need to be promoting something much more personal and life-changing.  We need to champion something much more fundamental and transformative for healthy human interactions.  We need to be promoting a social revival – a “Giving Revival.”

A Giving Revival is part education, part inspiration, and wholly metamorphic – for individuals and for our institutions.  Promoting a Giving Revival entails not just talking about the importance of giving, but formally and regularly educating on how your institution’s communal fabric grows stronger and more close-knit the more that generosity is practiced.  Promoting a Giving Revival means we stop asking people to give something and start inviting them to gain something by acting beyond their narrow self-interests.  Promoting a Giving Revival means we view our work not just as fundraisers, development officers, and marketers, but rather as champions of a lifestyle that promises profound personal rewards.

We work for institutions with noble missions aiming to transform the world.  It’s time for us as advancement professionals to transform how we approach our work.   If we truly are serious about advancing the altruistic missions of the institutions we serve, we must enthusiastically embrace the notion that broadly promoting a generous lifestyle is our best bet.  Our institutions and those we serve don’t need us simply to strengthen some impersonal “culture of philanthropy.”  No, we need to do something much more revolutionary.  We need a Giving Revival.  And if you start one, I can promise that the benefits will be immense.

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