Give a Little Bit

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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2 Responses to “Give a Little Bit”

  1. Highly Powered Says:

    This is cute in that smug nonprofit community way. But I think the real question for individual donors is more along the lines of “who is really benefiting from my contribution.” It is not exactly a big secret that much of the nonprofit sector exists largely to provide a conformtable life for connected insiders. Think of how many colleges continually solicit donations from alumni, while cutting student services or freezing faculty salaries and paying their executives exhorbatant amounts.

    The nonprofit sector needs more B.S. detectors, not cheerleaders.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Does it count as B.S. detection to say that equating “much of the nonprofit sector” with colleges doesn’t ring at all true? Most of the folks I know at nonprofits don’t feel like they live an especially comfortable life (especially not compared to those in the business sector – hello, retirement plans), like they’re insiders, or that they’re particularly well-connected!

    I’m with you that “who is really benefiting from my contribution” is an important question individual donors should ask.

    Not sure if your beef is with my post or the authors of the book. Anyway, season’s greetings to you.

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