Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Cultural Shift?

A friend and colleague wrote last week to share her concerns and invite my reaction. She reported “seeing an alarming trend” in the attitudes manifested by “pipeline” prospects, age 40-50. There is, she says, “so much quid pro quo among this next generation of donors.” Increasingly she is asked by these prospects if she can get their son or daughter, or even a neighbor, admitted or get better football tickets or even secure an introduction to another prominent alumnus for business purposes. “This worries me,” she says, “and makes me think a lot about the messages we will need to deliver to hopefully capture this crew at some tipping point in the future. You think a lot about the history and power of philanthropy and how it has changed and shaped our nation in so many fabulous ways. Do you think we are nearing a change in the fundamental concept that has made us great?”

It’s a huge and terribly important question. I don’t know if we are nearing a fundamental cultural shift in our outlook on and practice of philanthropy but I have worried about, and written and spoken about it for some time. I have pointed out that Americans have engaged in an unprecedented and unparalleled voluntary transfer of wealth over more than two centuries. I have characterized it as “the American Philanthropic Revolution” and argued that the good done by it has greatly advanced the ideals borne of the American Revolution and mitigated the prospects of violent social upheavals. In addition, I have explained that the origins of this remarkable philanthropic spirit can be traced back to our earliest roots, to the creation of communal constructs designed to yield civic and social improvements, and that we operated as “we the people” long before that phrase was coined in the preamble of the Constitution. And, when visitors from foreign universities came to me seeking to understand and export American fund-raising techniques, I took pains to point out we owed our success much more to the culture than the tactics of fund-raising. In my seminars and conferences, I say that I and other highly-experienced practitioners could take everything we have learned over decades to another country and not enjoy anything close to the success that we enjoy in this one. So, I have asked myself over the years and now ask openly at the outset of my seminars, why is it that so much of our training focuses on the application of technique and so little on achieving a deeper understanding of the culture that allows it to work.

To me the American philanthropic culture is a like a remarkably rich soil from which many wonderful things have grown, and will continue to if we don’t take more from it than we give back. Widespread fund raising practices that employ hard-sell, short-term, sometimes exploitative tactics slowly leeches our philanthropic soil of the nutrient of good will. Incessant fund raising in pursuit of “more, more, more” robs the soil of the nutrient of trust if those asking do not have a well-thought-out plan to actually do more as efficiently and effectively as possible. And so it goes. Everything selfish and short-term that we do, everything that is inefficient and ill-conceived, depletes the soil that has given us so much. To my friend’s question, I have to ask, “To what extent has the growth of technique-oriented fund raising operations created a jaded consumer?” What if that quid-pro-quo prospect pushes back and says, “If you’ve turned philanthropy into an entitled, incessant clamor for what you want, why shouldn’t I clamor for what I want?” or “If I can’t really see the difference my dollars make (unless I give you millions), why shouldn’t I try to get something out it?” or “How can you fault me for linking my giving to better football seats when your athletic department predicates its fund raising on it?”

If we see Americans becoming more selfish, short-term or demanding in the way they give, we should not only ask if the culture is changing but if we have contributed to change. Change begins with us, the practitioners of philanthropy.

In my next blog post, I will speak to the ways that we can replenish the American philanthropic soil. In the meantime, I invite your comments? Am I being too hard on us? Are we seeing a cultural shift toward more quid pro quo giving and away from selfless philanthropy and, if so, what can we do about it?

No comments: