Saturday, March 6, 2010

Degrees of Englightenment

Okay, so if you buy the premise of my last blog -- that philanthropy-seeking organizations would be wise to spend more time understanding how current and prospective donors relate to their organizational culture and less time on importing fund raising techniques from other institutions -- let’s talk about how to achieve the former.

Achieving anything of any significance at any institution begins with recognition at the top. In this case, we need the person at the top to understand that philanthropy is reciprocal. Yep, donors want something in return and philanthropy-seeking organizations need to figure out what their donors want from their particular culture.

Most organizations know the arrangement has to be more than “we ask -- you give” but too many err on that side in their day-to-day behaviors. It is not as if they are willfully neglectful or ungrateful; it’s just that they have not fully grasped what it means to incorporate donors as silent partners. Some institutions even view their relationship to donors with the moral condescension “since we represent a really important, noble cause, we ask-- we expect you to give -- and if you question us or want more you really don’t support our great cause.” Marginally more enlightened organizations subscribe to the policy of “we ask -- you give -- we thank you profusely as a strategy to get you to give again.” That’s still too one-sided though some institutions have enough of an “awe factor” to get away with it more than they should. More sophisticated institutions think in terms of “imagine what is possible -- get buy in -- we ask -- you give -- we thank --we share progress and results -- you give more when we fulfill our promise.” That’s better but still a bit self-referential if not self-reverential. The most sophisticated organizations proceed more along these lines “we scan the environment asking how our core competencies correspond to a growing social need or opportunity -- when we see a possible powerful correlation we propose a plan of action to key stakeholders -- we listen, incorporate the best suggestions and adjust -- then we, the proposing institution and its incorporated stakeholders, seek broadeer investment -- when an investment is secured we incorporate the investor into the fabric of our institution and the continuity of our cause -- we expect to retain you, the investor, not merely by thanking or remaining accountable but by adopting you as a shareholder, by giving you a voice, and by making you a part of our culture.”

And, yes, there are donors of various degrees of enlightenment. There are those who think “the more I give, the more you dance to my tune.” Then there are those that work from the model of “you ask -- I ask what I get in return before I give.” Slightly more evolved are those who assume “you ask -- I give a modest amount -- and expect extraordinary things to be done.” And, of course, there are the over-awed, unquestioning, loyal donors who give and ask nothing in return. Yet they, too, are far from optimal. No relationship gets better if one side asks too little of the other -- no vision, no accountability, no direction, no consideration. A weak side does not make the other strong; it weakens the whole. More sophisticated donors proceed along the lines of “life has been good to me; I should give back -- when asked I will give and use my success to make important institutions even better -- and I will let my generosity and success be used as an example to others.” That nice, maybe even very nice, but it’s still a bit self-referential if not self-reverential. The most sophisticated donors approach the process more along the lines of “there is meaning and purpose in my life -- I can employ philanthropy to extend the meaning of my life to others -- I can make a difference where my values direct me, where I believe a difference most needs to be made -- I will develop relationships with organizations who most unselfishly serve the causes I believe in. I will invest the most in those that deliver most frequently on their promise and I will try to serve them as unselfishly as they serve others.”

So reciprocity is sought by even the most magnanimous of donors. It is the reciprocity of joining together, of being equally committed and equally unselfish, or respecting and being respected, of giving of one’s heart and soul, and, as a result, belonging to a collective of purpose greater than any single interest or individual.

When the most enlightened organizations and the most sophisticated donors find common cause, the remarkable occurs. I have seen it happen. I know it is possible. But surely we must see the inverse is also true. We must consider what will happen if an institution of noble purposes engages in short-sighted, selfish fund raising practices. Expedient, unsophisticated fund raising will attract expedient, unsophisticated donors. The latter will eventually drag the former down.

Does the adoption of the most sophisticated, enlightened philanthropic policies and practices guarantee the attraction of the most sophisticated, enlightened philanthropists? Well, it certainly increases one’s chances just as the adoption of the inverse approach decreases one’s chances. But I don’t know that success is ever guaranteed. I just know it would be easier to live with struggles and setbacks borne of the best intentions than it would be to achieve a tenuous success cobbled together from the weak pieces of selfish means.


Lee said...
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Lee said...

Hi Jim,

I shared this entry with the development team at my alma mater in the hope that they can adopt some of these ideas and practices in advance of their next campaign. I think your thoughts here will lead to both better results and a much more rewarding work experience for the development professional, when this is done correctly.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I look forward to seeing you again soon.


Lee McCabe