Archive for December, 2012

Give a Little Bit

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer for that person in your life who asks you for advice about giving during the holidays, since you work in the nonprofit or foundation sector? Want to give a thank-you note to your foundation program officer for helping you keep the lights on? Hoping to fend off that cranky uncle who scoffs that you work in philanthropy because it’s not a real business, and giving money away is easy?

I’ve got a book for you. Giving with Confidence: A Guide to Savvy Philanthropy, by Colburn Wilbur with Fred Setterberg. (You can find it cheaper on Amazon, but come on, make an expressive choice and buy it from Powell’s, or better yet, ask your local bookstore to order it. I was given a free copy to review, and am honored to have been asked.) Cole is the former executive director of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and one of the grand wise men of philanthropy. (He’s been a senior fellow at the Council on Foundations and is quite active years after his putative retirement.) He was on the board of an organization I used to work for, Hispanics in Philanthropy, but I don’t believe we ever met other than in passing. But I remember hearing a story of how all the men on the HIP board wore Hawaiian shirts to a board meeting held in Hawaii when the Council on Foundations conference back in the day. The image of him – tall, thin, fair, soft-spoken – decked out in a bright shirt with everyone else warmed my heart.

And that unpretentiousness limns every page of this calmly voiced yet passionately argued book. There’s no grandstanding, no real name-dropping, just sage advice delivered in an even and friendly tone, even as he moves the reader gently, gradually, toward considering the advice of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which stakes out positions that make a lot of foundation folks uncomfortable (and good for them for doing so).

What’s great is that the book is pitched to a general audience, but it has nuggets of wisdom for those of us in the philanthropic sector, from someone who’s long labored in those air-conditioned trenches. Such common sense and plain talk.

To individual donors: “On a more mundane level, consult your checkbook and tax records to find out where your donations have actually gone in the past year or two. Fill a page with the amount of each gift and the name of the corresponding organization. Ask yourself: Given what I have, have I given enough? Do my donations jibe with my ambitions? Are there glaring holes in my giving patterns–or are there opportunities shining through?”

To individual donors: “Your contribution, however important, doesn’t make you a member of the starting team. You’re a fan and a booster. Your donation will require staff time to record and manage. Don’t add more than a couple of hours to the burden…. Instead of vocalizing about programs and policies, try asking the organization’s leaders what kind of assistance they need.”

To institutional donors: “Of course, ‘change’ is practically a sacred term in the parlance of grantmaking. (Who brags about their efforts to thwart it?) Yet, the inevitable handmaidens of change–controversy and opposition–are the last things most donors want to inspire.”

To all donors: “Sometimes addressing root causes is crucial. Other times, the symptoms prove so severe that they require immediate attention.”

Blessed common sense, and elegant, limpid prose. Wilbur and Setterberg have given us a gift, and one that’s especially useful this holiday season, when so many people (myself included) make an important number of our personal philanthropic choices. This year, I chose to allocate a significant portion of my giving budget to political giving (fully aware of the non-deductibility of those contributions). I tried to mix expressive and directional gifts. Time to take stock, write down that one page Wilbur and Setterberg recommend, and take stock. I hope you’ll do the same.

Warmest wishes for the holiday season. I’m grateful for another year of professional success and personal growth, and thankful to all who have followed along on this blog.

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Express Yourself

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Does anyone even know what the word “fiscal” literally means? The ironic thing about this time of year is that even though it’s nominally about giving, thoughts of money are everywhere – spending, saving, giving, hoping it’s all enough in our own lives, and then this year, worrying if those fools in Washington will get it together and figure out the “fiscal cliff.”

It’s beyond cliche to point out that we’re more consumers than citizens. But one of the consequences is that we compartmentalize our financial lives and separate them from our civic lives. Even within our financial lives, we compartmentalize. Money spent on goods is different from money spent on charity.

Allow me to suggest two different ways to think about the nexus of money and citizenship, which is ultimately what my two questions in this blog are about.

One mode of consumer-citizenship is expressive. We use money to reveal something about ourselves. I give to museums because I believe the arts should be available to all. I give to my alma mater because I want others to have the opportunities I had. I buy certain movies because I want to relive a certain experience, and maybe share it with others – I want to feel a certain way. I buy a certain brand of car because I want people to see me a certain way.

The other mode is directional. We use money to make something come about in the world. I give to a political campaign because I want certain policies enacted and others not. I give to a soup kitchen because I want hungry people to eat. I save for my children’s education because I want them to have certain opportunities. I buy a house in a certain neighborhood because I want to contribute to the rebuilding of a city.

And so, I think there are expressive and directional modes of individual philanthropy. I don’t yet know if I think that applies in an institutional context. But in each of our own lives, I’d say it’s healthy, this holiday season, to think about how we balance the directional and expressive elements of our giving.