Monday, December 21, 2009

Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History

Scholars, in ever larger numbers, are coming to see that the study of philanthropy is a means of gaining deep insight into American culture and history. This trend was made manifest in, and furthered by, the publication of Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History (2003). The book is a compilation of scholarly essays exploring the roots, dimensions and evolution of Americans' remarkable range of efforts to reform social ills, fight disease, improve education and to create a more just, democratic, peaceful and prosperous society.

The essays examine the intentions and consequences of various philanthropic ideals and initiatives, as well as their benefits, drawbacks and unintended consequences. In an essay entitled, "Woman and Political Culture," Kathleen McCarthy enumerates the distinct and disproportionate contributions women made to philanthropic pursuits as well as philanthropy itself and what philanthropy did for women. She writes, "Far from being apolitical, many middle-class housewives were deeply enmeshed in the practice of governance well before they won the right to vote... Although the first female-controlled charities were founded and managed by female elites, by the 1810s a national infrastructure for mobilization and reform had emerged... Over the past two centuries, American women effectively invested their time, talents, and funds in building an array of public services. Through their philanthropic activities, black and white women -- both North and South -- backed their churches, founded charities and literary societies, participated in social reform movements to end slavery and extend the vote, and worked in tandem with state and federal officials over the course of the Civil War. These activities enabled at least some to win political and legal benefits for themselves, to accord women's and children's issues a prominent place on the public agenda, and to promote social change to a degree unmatched in other industrialized nations. In the process, they managed to shape American government and the American welfare state from the periphery of the political arena through the power of philanthropy."

She concludes her cogent thesis by saying, "Women played a vital role in the emergence of civil society as well. Through public-private partnerships with local, state, and federal policy-makers, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector enabled an array of groups to claim a place on the public stage. Each group used these activities and institutions in different ways, to achieve often differing ends. We are just beginning to understand the impact of philanthropy in shaping American government and American governance, efforts exemplified by the continuing history of women's compassion and generosity."

There is so much more to learn about philanthropy. Kathleen McCarthy and others are helping us better understand how it has been shaped and by whom and, in turn, how it has shaped all of us. Among the conclusions I draw from these studies are:

1. That as we, as individuals and a society, pursue the creation of opportunity for others, we create unimagined opportunities, personal and professional for ourselves;

2. That in the pursuit of redressing inequity, we force ourselves to challenge assumptions, to think in different ways, and to create new competencies -- be they scientific, administrative, analytical or emotional -- that find far greater and farther reaching applicability; and

3. That the pursuit of philanthropic purposes, if conducted with humility and a selfless objectivity, will prove to be one of the greatest forces in shaping human history in the coming centuries.

Thank you for reading my blog. I wish you a joyous holiday season and endless contentment in the new year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Insight from the Heartland

In searching the web for examples of insight into, and or innovations in, philanthropy, I came across some wonderfully sound, simply-phrased advice dispensed on the website of the Nebraska 4-H branch. The information appears to have been posted years ago but it is still very much germane and I know of many universities and non-profits that would do much better if they would heed to it. Here are some selected excerpts, some of which I follow with brief comments.

"Are your group goals clear, specific, and action-oriented? Clarify what your group will do with the money raised. It is easier to raise money for specific projects than for the general support of an organization." Too many philanthropy-seeking organizations state their fund raising objectives in the form of broad categorical objectives such as faculty excellence, financial aid, or capital improvements rather than specific projects designed to produce results (e.g. to raise an additional $10 million to double the number of the most qualified, first generation students in five years).

"People donate money in direct relation to how strongly they believe in the program or group. Your success in fund raising indicates the popularity of your program. If contributions are not coming in, it may indicate the need to revise your program, to update your product, to change your image to be more responsive and appealing to the concerns and interests of prospective contributors. Publicize the good works of your organization. Sell your program rather than the need for money. People don't buy Buicks because GM needs money." This is so refreshing to read. All too often, when an organization fails to raise money, the tendency is to blame the fund raising apparatus rather than to ask if the program or initiative was ill-designed.

"Map out your strategy. It is what you do in advance that counts the most... Your market is everyone who will benefit directly or indirectly from your organization or cause." A strategy is the means of reconciling internal aspirations with external realities. The more market-sensitive your plans, the greater your chances of success.

"Understand that you must work with the world as it really is, rather than as it should be. People come prepackaged with different ideas, emotions, and values. To make your fund raising plan succeed, you have to do your homework and take the time to think about what makes the targeted donor tick. Each person give for a different reason. Tailor your appeal to the specific concerns, needs and interests of the individual." Hard to say it any better than that. We have to align our aspirations with the sensibilities of those that might support us.

"Give value for value. Clearly indicate what donors will receive in return for their contribution. This might include:
A statement of exactly what their contribution will buy, (e.g. $75 will send two kids to camp).
A statement of how the donor will directly or indirectly benefit as a result of your group or program, (e.g., we will lobby on behalf of you and other ranchers to....").
Personal recognition.
Good public relations for the donor.
A tax deduction.
Feeling good about themselves and what their contribution makes possible.
A sense of immortality. "
There are those who might say this advice is too transactional in tone but there is something about it that strikes me as genuinely American and makes me smile, including the "sense of immortality" you might achieve by giving $75 to send a couple of kids to camp.

"Give your personal testament as to the benefits of the group or program. Be upbeat and positive. The advantage (or disadvantage) of face-to-face communication is that your personal commitment and enthusiasm (or lack of it) are going to show through. Be specific rather than speaking in generalities (e.g., "I would not be able to speak to you except for the public speaking skills and confidence I've gained through Scouts. Your support will provide other young people with the same opportunity.") Look the prospective donor in the eye, and ask for the targeted amount." If someone in a Scout uniform made that pitch to me, there's no way I could say, "no."

"Practice. Never ask for a donation without having practiced first. Our natural fear and discomfort in asking people for money is overcome through good preparation and practice."

"Follow-Up. Acknowledge the gift with a personalized letter. Report on results. Be accountable. Interview benefactors and publicize how the program has benefited them. Build a donor relationship in anticipation of next year's fund raiser."

"Celebrate. Get together after the fund drive. Frankly discuss the work, share funny stories, applaud your success, and strategize on the hard cases. Fund raising is more imposing for new members, so give them an extra boost. Reward yourselves for a job well done."

"Be Prepared for Disappointments. Sometimes things go wrong. How do you rebound from a fund loser, and save morale? Get together as a group as soon as possible to talk about what went wrong and what can be done immediately to recoup your losses. If there were any mistakes of judgment, the chairperson should quickly accept responsibility. Simply say, "It was my fault." The purpose of your meeting is not to pin the blame. Make a list on paper of what went wrong and what to do differently next time. It is a great psychological relief to pin down the precise problem so it doesn't seem like everything went wrong. Stop dwelling on the "failure," and instead focus on what you will do to make up the loss." I'd love to see some variation of this played out at a university or oh-so non-profit. I'd better not push it any farther than that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Family and Faith: The Heart of American Philanthropy

In my lectures, seminars and writings, I often speak to the spiritual roots of American philanthropy and stress how important it is for philanthropy-seeking organizations to understand, respect, align with and further develop this profoundly important aspect of our culture.

In an article in The Global Spiral, Stephen G. Post underscores the singularity and cultural centrality of American philanthropy in asserting, "The most significant history of America is the story of how those committed to freedom and to the public good have used wealth to found and maintain institutions of education, health, culture, spirituality, and humanitarian aspiration. It is also a story about millions of people devoting time and energy in small ways to good causes. Our American histories are usually shaped by themes such as politics, culture, expansion, war, and the economy. We need to recognize that the history of this nation is at least as much one of philanthropy as of anything else, and that only through the spirit of philanthropy is there any ultimate hope for a prosperous, pluralistic, democratic future. Government has a vitally important role in responding to the needs of citizens, especially of those in dire need. But we also need philanthropy."

In the same article, he points to family history and religion as wellsprings of American philanthropy. "If we do live in an age of narcissism, the remarkable thing is that so many individuals and families act philanthropically," he says. "The traditions of philanthropic families seem strong enough to sustain the spirit of giving, and, if today's events are a measure, to help other families enter into this spirit. As one scholar who has studied philanthropic motives in depth through interview analysis concludes: "Most of the wealthy people we interviewed also cited family tradition as a reason to give to charity. For some, the family had a history of responding to the needs of communities where they had been 'leading families.'" Next to family history, spirituality and religion are often mentioned, and these features are usually a core aspect of family history. And, importantly, people want to pass this spiritual tradition of generosity on to their children. Some parents engage their children in volunteer work in adolescence, teach them by modeling a life of service: some involve their children actively in the life of the family foundation, including site visits and responsibility for some small grants."

The market research we have conducted through Georgetown's Advancement office shows that the majority of our most generous and loyal donors identify themselves by their faith and have had multiple family members attend the university. The correlation of spirituality to philanthropy is powerful according to Arthur C. Brooks, who, in a Policy Review article, entitled "Religious Faith and Charitable Giving," writes, "Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions."

So, given the strength of this evidence, I continue to challenge those philanthropy-seeking organizations who resort to soul-less, short-term, and metrically reductive approaches to fund raising. I believe that donors give despite, not because of, these approaches. These organizations would be better served, and would better serve the American philanthropic phenomenon, by giving more time and attention to designing goals and activities that would tap into and satisfy our deepest spiritual aspirations and by asking what they might do to not only raise more gifts in the next year but to earn the support of families over many generations.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Cultural Check List

My wife recently participated in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Race for the Cure (of breast cancer). The popularity and success of this event, which is staged at different times in different cities across the country, can be attributed to way it taps into the deep roots of American philanthropic culture. In particular, the event works because it:

1. Defines common cause ("race" underscores the urgency while "cure" defines the purpose; an audacious goal stated in clear and simple terms);

2. Promotes community (the event attracts thousands of walkers who trek together over three days, ultimately traversing 60 miles, bonding with each other as they go and with the many well-wishers who line the route and offer their encouragements);

3. Encourages individual expression (with walkers donning all sorts of costumes and get-ups, and coming up with names that incorporate or pun on "breast" or its more colorful synonyms, and, yet, it is e pluribus unum -- "out of many, one" at its best);

4. Requires a significant investment of time and effort (walkers are required to raise a minimum of $2300 and walk 60 miles but they get so much out of it precisely because they put so much in);

5. Makes effective use of symbol and ritual (there's an opening and closing ceremony for the walkers, a ritual beginning and end; in the closing ceremony the walkers enter a large circular enclosure while the "inner circle" is reserved for the cancer survivors; for many of those survivors, crossing the finish line brings closure to their struggle; they "made it" with the help of family and friends);

6. Combines solemnity with celebration (many walkers carry "in memorium" messages of love ones they have lost, as do the well-wishers along the way but they also celebrate those who survived; the celebration of life exists side by side with the sorrow of loss).

These six success factors serve as a check list for all philanthropy-seeking organizations who wish to find the way to strike the most resonant cultural chords. As you evaluate your messages, events and other channels of communication, ask yourself how well you stack up against this criteria.