Monday, December 20, 2010

Star of Wonder, Star of Night

When we see a star, we’re looking back in time. That coruscating speckle in the far sky that we think we’re seeing in the present is really a package of photons that left another galaxy millions and millions of years ago and is just now arriving on the doorstep of our visibility. Indeed, much of what we apprehend as being in the present is really the past arriving into our view. When we look at the seemingly endless diversity of human, animal and plant life, we’re really seeing eons of genetic history, of innumerable adaptations and mutations, displaying themselves to us. When we look at art that we think is modern and daring, we’re really seeing thoughts and feelings that have been expressed and re-expressed over the millennia using essentially the same visual vocabulary. And, as we enjoy another season of giving, and reflect on all that has been given to society through philanthropy, we’re really seeing the latest manifestation of a timeless ideal, one that we have come to characterize as the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is a cornerstone of every great faith, every enduring civilization and all people of principle. If you Google “the universality of the Golden Rule,” you will see the many ways that simple but deeply resonant creed has echoed across cultures and throughout time. It is, it seems, the one thing that virtually all of us, past and present, can agree to, at least in principle. Philanthropy is a way of doing for others as we hope they would do for us had our fates and fortunes been reversed. It is a way of doing for future generations what past generations did for us. Since we cannot pay back the past, we give in the present, but never more generously than when we give to the future. No philanthropist leaves an estate saying, “Use this up as fast as you can.” They try to extend the meaning of their lives, and the good fortune they enjoyed, by giving to institutions that will preserve that meaning over a long, long time. That is the purpose of institutions, to preserve and transfer values from one generation to the next so that meaning, learning and value will not be lost in space and time. Philanthropy is not simply believing in the Golden Rule but enacting it in selfless ways for timeless impact.

The star of philanthropy guides humanity toward its perfect light and offers a shining, steady hope for the betterment of the human condition. That light arrives to us from far away and long ago. And what we do today, in its name, will send light to future generations. Time will erode our vanities and follies but preserve our goodness well after our inconsequential names and personal histories have been forgotten and deliver it through many a night in the form of warming, illuminating, loving light.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Inviting Involvement

“An overwhelming majority of Americans say it’s important for them to be involved in their community amid concern that technological gadgets and harried schedules are fraying human connections,” USA Today reported last Thursday, citing a poll conducted in conjunction with Gallup from October 21-24. The strength of those feelings , USA Today reported, was consistent across “educational, gender and regional lines.”

That’s good news for American philanthropy, an unparalleled and unprecedented force for social good that grew out of highly interdependent communities. Our earliest settlers realized that collaboration was essential to their survival, then to social stability and prosperity. They worked side by side to raise homes and barns, to construct churches, roads and bridges, to bring in harvests and lay in food for winter, and to extinguish fires and provide for their common defense. “We the people” existed as a model organizing principle long before the phrase was coined in the preamble of the Constitution.

It is no wonder, then, that Americans still yearn for and seek fulfillment in community involvement. The simple fact is that we need each other and are at our happiest when working together toward common ends and aspirations. Yet too many philanthropy-seeking organizations fail to either fully grasp the importance of this phenomenon or open themselves sufficiently to benefit from it.

Yes, many organizations invite and encourage volunteer participation. Yet too many do it solely as a pretext for fund raising. Volunteers are recruited for no other purpose but to raise money or to serve on boards with little real purpose if they agree to give or get money as a condition of joining. “Make work” activities are orchestrated for boards to induce members to give. Board members soon sense this and begin to complain about being asked to do nothing more than sit through “dog and pony” presentations and write checks.

Far greater opportunities and rewards await organizations that more genuinely seek to put the times and talents of volunteers to their highest and best use. To attract and benefit from the talents of the most substantive volunteers, enlightened organizations must:

Truly believe that they need, and will be far more strategically adaptive if they complement internal staff strengths with external volunteer capabilities;

Integrate volunteers into the fabric of the institution, including in the deliberation of sensitive issues, including crises and controversies;

Guide their efforts without exerting undo control over them;

Make it clear, in word and deed, that volunteers are not there to serve the organization but help the organization better serve others;

Involve them early on in the design of specific service outcomes associated with major initiatives;

Seek to provide a rich emotional return on their investment by sharing struggles and credit for successes;

The organizations that master the art of selective, strategic, substantive volunteer engagement in the context of service-oriented initiatives will secure the greatest amounts of private support in the decades ahead. And, in the process, they will build stronger communities which in turn will create a stronger nation and a more vibrant democracy. That’s how “we the people” did it in the first place. That’s how we can and will do it again.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Upcoming Conferences and Webcasts

Here are the topics I will be addressing in the next six months through a series of Academic Impressions webcasts and conferences. I hope you will join me and let me know what other topics are of interest to you.

Looking Ahead to 2011 in Advancement
(Free Webcast): Tuesday, January 25, 2011 – 1:00-2:15 PM EST

The Art and Science of the Advancement Interview (Webcast): Tuesday, March 15, 2011 - 1:00-2:30 PM EDT

Rethinking Major Giving to Meet Today’s Donor Demands (Conference): Monday & Tuesday, March 28-29, 2011

Understanding the Differences Between Sponsored Research and Private Support (Webcast): Monday, April 04, 2011 - 1:00-2:30 PM EDT

Dealing with Competing Internal Demands on Advancement Resources (Webcast): Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - 1:00-2:30 PM EDT

Recruiting and Positioning Faculty for Successful Advancement Work (Webcast): Monday, June 13, 2011 - 1:00-2:30 PM EDT

Building a Fundraising Partnership Between Academics and Advancement Managers (Conference): Monday & Tuesday, June 27-28, 2011

Collaborative Prospect Identification Between Academics and Advancement (Webcast): Monday, July 11, 2011 - 1:00-2:30 PM EDT