Monday, November 2, 2009

Replenishing Our Philanthropic Soil

In my last blog post, I compared the American philanthropic culture to a “remarkably rich soil from which many wonderful things have grown." I voiced my concern about fairly widespread “hard sell” fund raising tactics that deplete the soil, that exploit the obligation that many Americans feel to “give back” by asking for “more, more, more” without feeling an equally insistent institutional obligation to actually do more. If too many institutions put more energy into raising money than they do in planning the most economic or efficient use of the funds raised, our philanthropic soil will become ever more depleted and more and more of what we call philanthropy will look increasing like quid pro quo deals.

Conversely, if we ask how we can best replenish the soil that has served so many so well for so long, my answer would be to think very carefully about the promises we make to donors, then to do as we promised. In too many cases, the promises are overly broad and overtly self-serving. Even institutions that do a good job of accounting for the dollars they raise often fall short in defining the explicit qualitative gains that have been achieved, particularly the difference they have made in the day-to-day lives of those that they exist to serve. No, I’m not saying that philanthropy-seeking organizations should not make promises; I’m saying that should make very specific, practical, well-thought-out promises and do all they can to deliver on them. I’m saying those promises should be less about creating more distinguished institutions and more about helping others. And, finally, those promises should be made only after institutions listen to their constituents and find where there is collective will to achieve a greater societal good.

The next best way for institutions to replenish our philanthropic soil is to commit themselves not only to creating a culture of gratitude but a culture of commitment. If we accept a gift, we accept a partner. A true partner is one with whom we keep faith even if he or she is not present. That involves everything from making sure the language of fund raising is not unduly depersonalizing (e.g. “targets” or “suspects” to be “nailed” or “hit on”) to ensuring that we never expend private funds for purposes that we would prove embarrassing or awkward if donors were in front of us demanding an explanation, and from requiring the institutional recipients of private funds to carefully document their use to creating systems that allow us to preserve “donor intent” over time. Too idealistic? Well, I’d say that idealism is one of the richest ingredients in our philanthropic soil so, if we’re going to draw on it and prosper from it, we’d better make sure to put enough of it back.

If we are authentic in abiding by our ideals, assiduous in the pursuit of our mission and scrupulous in the management of our resources, we can call our donors to a selfless philanthropic standard. But, if we let gaps grow between our word and deed, or allow ourselves to feel entitled to the automatic support of others, or become too transactional in our fund-raising approaches, or make philanthropy too much about what we want, we cannot feign surprise when donors ask, “Then what’s in it for me?”

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