Posts Tagged ‘motivations for giving’

There’s a Place for Us

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

In a prior post, I shared information about 2015 grants we made in the Ford Foundation’s rebooted Philanthropy portfolio. One of the categories was “Engaging More Donors for Social Justice.” What do we mean by that?

In this post, I’ll focus on what kinds of donors we have in mind, and how we’ll approach learning more about them.

We know that generosity is relational, social, and holistic – we don’t compartmentalize the way we help others, we just help: in our families, with our friends, in our neighborhoods. And yet philanthropy is seen as so formalized: foundations, donor-advised funds, giving circles – it seems like someone has to write by-laws and take minutes just to express a simple act of generosity through money in philanthropy-land.

It’s time to break down those walls. We need to reclaim generosity from the philanthropoids. I write this as a card-carrying philanthropoid. (No, really: my business card says: “Program Officer, Philanthropy”.) And part of that reclaiming is understanding how people give, and how they are helped to give. There are bookshelves of treatises on this. I think about it like this:

Who Gives What They Give Who Helps Them Give
Everyday Givers $50 at a time Crowdfunding platformsDirect mail from nonprofits Community foundations
Professionals $500 Giving circles
High-Net-Worth Donors $5,000 Social Venture PartnersBoards of larger nonprofitsCommercial donor-advised funds (Fidelity)
Ultra-High-Net-Worth Donors $50,000 Wealth managers and private banksFamily officesPrivate philanthropy advisors

Of course, these categories aren’t hard and fast. In particular, an individual may move up and down these categories, and just because you have a lot of money doesn’t mean you give a lot (and vice versa). One of my favorite words is “heuristic” – it means a device or tool that helps you organize your thoughts and solve problems. The above is a heuristic, an approximation of reality that hopefully captures some basic truths.

And one of those may be this: While some of the platforms mentioned above (particularly community foundations) serve multiple types of donors, for the most part, where you can give depends on how much you have to give.

So if we want to learn how to get more donors engaged in social justice, we need to understand these different levels of giver, understand the places where they give, and figure out what works for engaging what kinds of donors with social justice.

Why does this matter? Because organizations working on the front lines to disrupt the drivers of inequality are largely starved for resources.

Over the course of this year, we will explore these issues through blogging and convening.

  • On Everyday Givers: We’ll look at whether crowdfunding platforms are good for social-justice organizations; and what crowd-resourcing efforts like ioby can teach us about donor engagement and grassroots leadership.
  • On Professionals: We’ll look at innovative efforts to engage professional donors of color, and learn from what’s come previously.
  • On High-Net-Worth Donors: We’ll look at how the growth of commercial donor-advised funds has affected the type of donor education available and what it’s taught us about donor motivations; and how the Social Venture Partners model has sought to engage this audience.
  • On Ultra-High-Net-Worth Donors: We’ll look at how wealth managers and private banks view their work with donors; and at how donor networks like Solidaire Network and Resource Generation connect people with wealth and class privilege with community organizing and social movements.

By the end of these activities, we’ll hope to have learned more about what types of donors are amenable to social justice, and what techniques work and don’t to help them get there.

As a donor yourself, how do you engage, and where? What platforms do you use to give, and who helps you do so?


Windmills in My Mind

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

I saw a preview screening of the new Spike Jonze movie “Her” this week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. In a studiously bespoke near-future Los Angeles (all the men were comically high-waisted pants in a sly prediction of what 2020 Brooklyn will be like), Joaquin Phoenix, freshly divorced, falls in love with a uniquely intuitive operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The main romance, I guess you have to call it, is compelling enough, but it’s the throwaway details of the imagined world in which the characters live that feels so uncanny – almost too real. At a certain point, everyone is walking around talking to their OS in the same way Phoenix’s character – a thumbless version of the bubbles we all float around in on the subway in New York. All these people isolated but feeling cozily connected in a perfectly individualized way – pure, comfy atomization.

What the characters enjoy most about the OS is that it knows them intimately, based on their data (emails, contacts, browsing habits, conversation). To be understood and accepted is what everyone longs for.

Ironic then, that what is so readily achieved with one’s own device is so very hard to achieve with others. We find ourselves imagined so well and so thoroughly, our desires and needs catered to, and find it increasingly difficult to understand the experiences of others, to imagine what their lives must be like, or even to think to ask that question in the first place.

The semi-fake essay “Poverty Thoughts” blew up in my social media feed, before what now seems like the inevitable backlash of puncturing the hype balloon. The author wrote searingly of the thought processes that make “bad decisions” by poor people seem perfectly reasonable, even rational, given the circumstances. People reading and sharing it resonated with the (apparent) truth-telling, particularly at a time when the GOP was slashing food stamp benefits. Here was some real talk, insight into what it’s like and why apparently mystifying behavior (buying luxury goods when you have minimal income) can be reasonable in a frame of reference where saving for the future doesn’t accomplish anything and hope is the true luxury.

I take it as a sign that we’re so hungry to know the experiences of others that so many people, myself included, fell for this semi-hoax. The world of “Her” is not yet upon us if these kinds of stories resonate, even if they turn out not to be as cut and dry as originally presented. Our credulity is a sign of our humanity, our longing for insight and connection. So I’m glad that the Times’ series on homeless youth in New York is gaining traction.

So when it comes time to do your holiday giving, ask yourself, whose experience of everyday life do I want to improve? When I think of the “beneficiaries” of my giving, how well can I imagine them? How different are they from me, really? Giving is an act of solidarity, but it’s also an act of imagination. Dive into stories like the Times’ “Invisible Child” and make a connection with a reality outside your own. The Joaquin Phoenix “Her” future of coddled solipsism doesn’t have to be the one we create.

Hollywood Ending

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Kudos to Public Interest Projects for a great conference yesterday. “Breaking Out” was a thoughtful series of discussions about philanthropy in the 21st century.

One thing stuck in my craw, however. I appreciate the power of storytelling, and get that narrative is an important tool for engagement. The videos shown for the Girl Effect (an oldie but a goodie) and the trailer for the new documentary “A Place at the Table”, about hunger in America were compelling. They told a clear story, with a call to action, and were shot/animated and scored in a way that stirred the emotions. Their makers touted them as a useful tool for engaging broad audiences.

Part of the reason such narratives are so powerful is that they tap into mental models that have been shaped by a lifetime of consuming fictional narratives. Hollywood has taught us how to read stories, and those stories almost always have a happy ending. What’s more, movies purposely skip over the mundane details. The hero wakes up, then she’s at the office. You don’t see her hellish commute.

But here’s the thing. It’s in those mundane details that social change really happens. And more importantly, it’s where social change goes wrong, or just fails to happen. But narratives that draw on the instinctual grammar of fiction encourage us to see the world through a Hollywood lens – whether they intend to or not. Our mind fills in the blanks in the story, but does so hopefully, or with the best-case scenario. But often the scenario plays out differently. And there’s nothing more demoralizing than a story that falls flat. Look at what happened to #kony2012.

So I have to question the value of narrative and storytelling for social change, at least in the form of a three-minute video. Let’s have ground truth, in all its complexity, and not a fairy tale. I’m hopeful that the full version of “A Place at the Table” does this. And I’m looking forward to Jose Antonio Vargas’ “Documented.”

Have you seen examples of videos advancing social change that don’t draw on the Hollywood logic of happy endings, and are still powerfully motivating?

Clever Animals

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Peter Singer’s recent NYT op-ed, “Good Charity, Bad Charity,” mounts a significant challenge to business as usual in organized philanthropy. He has no problem saying that certain forms of philanthropic endeavor are just not as important, and deserve less investment, than others.

Singer proposes a thought experiment comparing giving to treat river blindness in developing countries and giving to build the new wing of a museum, calculating (literally) that the former creates 10 times as much value as the former.

“Given this choice, where would $100,000 do the most good?,” Singer asks. “Which expenditure is likely to lead to the bigger improvement in the lives of those affected by it?”

There’s something forbidding about pursuing Singer’s line of reasoning. Where do you stop? How much of your income is enough to give to proven solutions that improve life outcomes for other people? If those exist and you know about them, aren’t you obligated by that knowledge to give as much as possible?

There’s an element of Singer’s thought that I hesitate to mention, because the debate he surfaces is a useful one. It has to do with the relative merit of people and animals. This element surfaces in what he frames as a more difficult question in philanthropy, as opposed to the “easy” one of deciding that preventing trachoma for 1,000 people is 10 times more valuable than building a new wing of a museum that 100,000 people will visit.

“The choice between, say, helping the global poor directly, and helping them, and all future generations, by trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is more difficult,” Singer writes. Okay, climate deniers aside, so far so good.

“So, too, is the choice between helping humans and reducing the vast amount of suffering we inflict on nonhuman animals.” Really? That’s a difficult choice? “Nonhuman animals.” There’s perspective, and then there’s perspective.

In his provocative op-ed on“The Charitable-Industrial Complex,” Peter Buffett says, “I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.” There’s an element of Singer’s thought that might label humanism as “speciesism.” Like I said, here’s something forbidding about following his line of reasoning.

I’ll have more to say about Singer’s challenge to philanthropy, but this facet of it seemed worth mentioning.

Stone Soup

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Whether or not comprehensive immigration reform passes this year – and after this week’s initial reaction by the House Republicans, things are looking less certain – the need for immigrant civic integration is a reality.

Here’s a modest proposal: philanthropy can help by creating and supporting spaces where communities can celebrate traditions of giving across cultures. Mutual aid societies, hometown associations, tithing, potlatch – most if not all cultures have established practices of individual collective giving.

“Everyone is a philanthropist” – and in being so, they draw on a wide variety of traditions. Let’s name those, lift them up, and learn from each other.

I was involved in a giving circle for a number of years that wasn’t culturally based, but I found it worked best as an “onramp” for people new to New York who wanted to learn more about philanthropy and nonprofits.

Community Investment Network is doing really interesting work bringing together leaders from giving circles across the country rooted in communities of color. A number of community foundations have ethnically- or racially-focused giving circles, and certainly women’s funds are popular, as the strength of the Women’s Funding Network attests.

Where I’d like to see this go is as a vehicle for immigrant civic integration at a local level. Philanthropy, community foundations, and other grantmaking public charities can be a venue for communities – both recent immigrants and immigrants from 100, 200, or 400 years ago (not necessarily voluntary…) – to learn about and from each other’s traditions are giving.

A lot of this will be based around faith traditions. As nervous as this may make some progressives, I think it’s a great place to start. Religious traditions can be  a source of social-justice righteousness or daunting fundamentalism. But they’re large and accommodate many points of view. Not saying there won’t be disagreements, but faith just has to be part of the equation. That’s what drives a huge percentage of individual giving, right, isn’t that what we always read about in Giving USA?

So: community foundations, grantmaking charities, and other place-based funders – think about building shared traditions of giving as a means to promote immigrant civic integration. Because whatever happens in Congress, communities across the country are transforming as a result of migration. It’s another moment in a cycle that has repeated throughout the history of this country. Let’s use philanthropy as a way to make this one smoother.


P.S. Congratulations to New American Leaders Project on three years of trailblazing and important work. Missed out by one on being their 1000th “like” on Facebook.

Take the Bait

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

I’m pretty sure that it’s a spam account, but one of my Twitter followers seems to exist to spew out random questions about fundraising and the nonprofit sector, and solicit people to contribute answers. At the risk of further spam, I’ll take the bait and answer a question that showed up in my feed and piqued my interest:

“What if every company were non-profit including Wal-mart?”

My favorite kind of question, one that invites consideration of an alternate reality, in a way that questions the premises of our current reality. Lot of good sci-fi out of that conceit. (RIP Fringe, so good until the last season.)

There are different ways to answer this, but I’ll choose this approach: what if every company, instead of returning value to shareholders, were obligated to reinvest surplus in the mission?

To start with, would all companies be private? Would there be any reason to take a company public? There would if you thought that other people might like to share the risk of ownership with you because they believe in the mission. They might risk losing their money if the business goes belly-up. But wait – how is that any different from receiving donations from individuals? They don’t expect to get a financial return – in essence, they’re sacrificing that money, in return for the hope of social impact. (See last week’s post on the three returns and “third heat” of impact investing.)

Are we just talking about membership organizations, where people pay a certain amount to belong to an institution, like a film society or a museum? No, they’re not assuming any risk for anything other than their own money. Someone has to be accountable for the assets of the organization.

So a public non-profit company would be…just a regular non-profit. What would a private non-profit company be? A foundation? No, those have particular obligations to pay out 5% of their assets. And they’re insulated from market pressures other than on their endowments. A private non-profit company would have owners who would directly assume the risk of failure if expenses exceed revenues to the point where all assets are depleted.  It would have beneficiaries, and purchasers of its services, but only a relatively small number of owners assuming the risk. And they would do so without expecting value returned to them from a surplus.

So this seems to come down to ownership and risk. What’s different about a world where all companies are non-profits is that, at first blush, it’s not clear why anyone would start a company, or try to grow it. But I suspect if we look beyond the profit motive, there would be other reasons to do so. For another post….

How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

I met up with the brilliant, genuine, and always engaging Trista Harris on a trip to Minneapolis earlier this week. I love our conversations because she’s so smart about philanthropy and so savvy about how to make it more responsive to communities.

We talked about authentic engagement with stakeholders, the astonishing racial achievement gaps in the Twin Cities, “Minnesota nice,” how to leverage modest grantmaking budgets through targeted advocacy, and many other topics. I walked away inspired. One idea we cooked up is that foundations should be like app makers: put a lot of behind-the-scene effort into creating a “technology” (literal or metaphorical) that enables connections between actors and information, or actors and each other, that the actors can control themselves and that make their lives better. And then get the hell out of the way, and let the magic happen. Sometimes this is as simple as a convening in which groups that don’t talk to each other but should get a chance to connect.

Sometimes it can be more literal. We talked about disaster grantmaking, and how it shapes people’s perceptions of the nonprofit sector. She shared an experience working on response to the highway bridge collapse in the Twin Cities a few years back, and how people’s wonderful generosity in donating goods and toys was at a complete disconnect with people’s actual needs. And the thing is, it’s cash that people need most in a situation like that. But people often want to make it most personal.

So our idea for an app was, you’re a ninth grader in Iowa who reads about the bridge collapse (or Sandy, or Katrina, or what have you) and you want to help. The app lets you choose a good to donate – a teddy bear, some clothes, canned goods – that you can personalize as much as possible; that good gets donated to a local shelter; and the equivalent amount of cash gets donated to people directly in the disaster situation of your choosing. You get the feel-good; the local person gets the good; and the far-away person gets the cash they can use most.

All right, someone go make that happen! Mazel tov and God bless.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

The always thoughtful Starita Boyce had an update on LinkedIn that got me thinking:

Not everyone can give a five-figure cash gift to the endowment fund. But, everyone can gift a life insurance policy.

I put this alongside the fact that Latino and African-American average household wealth is shockingly, shockingly, shockingly low compared to white and Asian average household wealth. Under $7,500 vs. ~$70,000 and up. I mean, what??

I think of Chris Rock’s line, “Shaq is rich. The guy who owns the Lakers is wealthy!”

I think of the story a couple of years ago of entrepreneurs offering a share of their future life income in exchange for an investment in their business.

And of course, there’s the fact that as a percentage of income, those lower on the income ladder give the most.

And it gets me thinking about what I’d call a “personal leverage factor.” What resources can you mobilize through your very existence, your very person?

What Starita is calling on people to recognize is that their personal leverage factor extends beyond income. A middle-class family saving to send two kids to college without much discretionary income for annual gifts to nonprofits (seems like a low personal leverage factor in terms of philanthropy) can have a decent-sized life insurance policy that can be part of a bequest (higher personal leverage factor). It’s a way of saying, how does society value your life? Depressing to think that one can be reduced to a number – or to that number among several others, but what Starita points us to is understanding the full extent of our personal leverage factor.

The great thing about philanthropy and volunteerism is that they extend, or even multiply, your personal leverage factor. (By the way, this is part of why social media are so appealing.) Perhaps this is another measure of wealth.

(This doesn’t even get into interpersonal leverage factor. And I’m sure personal leverage factor has something to do with the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, my two questions. Material for future posts….)

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die (#2)

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Moving away for a minute from my usual shtick of having a song title as the title of the post, I want to resurrect (ha, ha) an old thread from quite a while back: zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die. The series (well, now it’s a series ’cause I’m posting a second one) was inspired by an article called “five zombie economic ideas that won’t die.” So I’m doing a version for philanthropy.

# 1 was: Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.

#2 is: There are too many nonprofits.

I can’t tell you how often I hear this in my work with nonprofits and the people who support them. It’s usually in reference to a particular topic area (like addressing a particular disease) or geography (X city or state). What’s behind this?

  • If there are a lot of organizations with the same mission, something must be wrong.
  • More nonprofits should just merge.
  • Someone (a funder) should go in and fix that.

Do we ask this about for-profit businesses? (I did once hear a nonprofit board member who worked in the banking sector say, “there are too many banks,” at a time of a lot of mergers in that field.) If there are too many for-profits, not all of them survive. Just ask anyone trying to open a restaurant in New York City.

What’s different in the nonprofit sector? One might say there aren’t the same market pressures; donors keep nonprofits going even when they’re not relevant, or because they’re a pet cause.

But what kind of survival are we really talking about? A lot of these organizations don’t necessarily grow, they chug along at a certain size (maybe a $500,000 annual budget) with a couple of handfuls of staff, providing services in the community. Now, we might question how effectively they provide those services, but why shouldn’t they exist?

What we’re talking about are the mom and pop shops of the nonprofit sector. (My TCC Group colleague Pete York is starting to write and talk about this.) I’ve written about the idea of a funding ecosystem, where you need small shrubs and bushes alongside big trees, or the big trees won’t survive. “There are too many nonprofits” may – may – be the equivalent of “there are too many bushes.”

In our rush to scale, and replicate, and leverage, it’s worth pausing to consider the value of the type of organization that makes up the vast majority of the nonprofit sector. And to really look at them, what they do well, and where they could improve. But not dismiss them with, “there are too many nonprofits.” (And hey, sometimes there no doubt are.) Get to know the forest in which you’re walking, and how the rain filters through the trees, and the shrubs, and the roots. Watch a season cycle or two, and see how the forest grows and contracts naturally.

Just be careful in some of the mossy patches, for the hand that reaches up from the ground to the strains of a violin stab…another zombie philanthropic idea. To be continued….

Such Great Heights

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Last time, I looked at how “philanthropizing” creates vertical ties where none may have existed before.

This may be due to a market failure. A necessary one. On some level, we need the insulation of institutionalized philanthropy because it’s intensely awkward to give to a stranger directly. (Giving to people you know has its own joys and complications.)

I experienced this in the Rockaways shortly after Sandy. I was volunteering at a church that was receiving and distributing donations of goods. In the late afternoon, folks started coming in to receive them. Folding tables were set up in a horseshoe in the church gymnasium. Behind them were piles of clothes, blankets, toys, canned goods, and cleaning supplies. Between the tables and the goods were volunteers.

I was on canned goods for a while. Easy enough. I noticed that it made a difference whether I offered something or asked what they wanted. I was being given the micro power to shape expectations, and I didn’t want it. But at first, fairly harmless. When a woman said, “I just want something that reminds me of Thanksgiving,” I delighted in fishing out a can of yams I had just carefully sorted into a section with other starches (yes, there’s such a thing as canned potatoes, alas).

Things got weird when I moved I over to the paper goods. How many rolls of toilet paper are enough? How many rolls of paper towels? Who the eff am I to say? We had some vague guidelines, but it was incongruous to be parroting those to people when a stream of volunteers was piling twelve-packs of paper towels atop each other behind me. I get that the guidelines were there for a reason, but it all felt so arbitrary in the moment.

Here was a vertical tie emerging, unbidden, unwanted on either end. It’s easy to think the alternative would have been a free-for-all; some structure is needed to distribute scarce goods. But I would have been glad, in that moment, for more intermediation. I had chosen this type of volunteering because I wanted to do something direct. But that particular setup and structure left a sour taste. (Delivering hot meals to homebound seniors in the Red Hook Houses felt simpler and “cleaner.”)

Market relations are corrosive when they invade every corner of life. (I’m looking forward to reading The Moral Limits of Markets, which I have waiting on my Kindle app.) Their impersonal nature erodes solidarity. But sometimes, a little distance may be helpful.

This leads me to wonder whether contemporary philanthropy needs a market framework to operate, a certain amount of structure and impersonality. That feels counter-intuitive or wrong – giving is from the heart – but that church gymnasium, with its scoreboard blankly tallying HOME and AWAY, keeps coming back to my mind’s eye.