Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How To Be A Better Donor

All those who give to a good cause should be the object of our collective gratitude. They make the world a better place. And, yet, if their generosity were coupled with deeper discernment, their good works would have even greater impact. It is, then, with that hope that I offer these tips to those who are thinking about giving.

1. Look inside. Don’t be passive and wait for organizations to contact you and tell you why you should care. Ask yourself who or what made a difference in your life, and if you would like to make that kind of difference in someone else’s life. Ask yourself the most important lessons life has taught you and how you can use philanthropy to extend the meaning of your life to others. Ben Franklin, who struggled as a printer’s apprentice, left a portion of his estate in the form of a loan fund for young tradesman to start their own businesses. In so doing, he sought to promote economic development by making opportunities available to others that had been denied to him.

2. Listen to your feelings. When you read or listen to the news, what developments give you the most hope or the greatest pause? What makes your spirits soar or tugs at your heart? Ask yourself which organizations are best dealing with the issues, causes and concerns that affect you most deeply, and how you might be able to help them.

3. Develop philanthropic objectives. How much do you want to give each year? How much of your net worth would you like to give to good causes? Do you plan to give to one or many organizations? What will be the criteria for determining how much you will give to each? To which will you give the most? Why? Thinking all these things through before you engage in specific philanthropic discussions will allow you to sort among many requests and to guide those who you deem most worthy of your support.

4. Seek to fill gaps. Look for the organization that is truly filling the gaps in service or opportunity around the cause you care most about. Give to the organization that best makes a difference where a difference most needs to be made. Give to those who can best demonstrate the difference your gift will make, including precisely who will benefit, how, and when.

5. Avoid replication. Don’t create another non-profit or another foundation, if there are others doing essentially the same work. It is more productive to help make existing organizations better than to start your own and compete for the same resources, especially now. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the angels of your better nature. Look at Warren Buffet, the “sage of Omaha,” who decided to give most of his wealth to the Gates Foundation. His wisdom will be long honored.

6. Set conditions for engagement. As you explore where your support can make the greatest difference, let organizations know how you want to conduct the negotiations. Lay out the conditions under which you will review their proposals, when you will respond, and the criteria you will use to make your decisions. If you are passive or indecisive, you will invite aggression. One of the reasons that so many organization engage in heavy-handed or even obnoxious fund-raising practices is because too few donors say, “I won’t give to an organization that conducts itself this way.” Indeed, if you really want to understand an organization, ask about its fund raising policies and practices, including who does it and how they are evaluated and compensated. If you see a lot of spending on fund raising quotas and little on relationship-building and stewardship, beware.

7. Ask tough questions about institutional planning and performance. See who holds up best to questions the difference their organization is making, and how they plan to make an even greater difference. Again, the reason that so many organizations get away with wishful thinking and mediocre performance is that their donors ask too little of them. Perhaps some donors think of themselves as loyal by not asking tough questions but blind loyalty can contribute to sloppy thinking, poor planning and corrosive complacency.

8. Monitor, don’t manage. By all means, ask the organizations you give to for regular updates on how the project you supported is progressing but don’t try to manage the project itself. Before you give make sure you understand who will be seeing the project through, what is to be accomplished and when, but don’t tell them how to do it.

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