Sunday, April 3, 2011

Philanthropy as a Value Proposition

Philanthropy is about a value proposition. Yes, donors “give,” rather than “buy” but they still assign a relative value to the causes and institutions they support. In short, they give more to some and less to others. So how do they make those calculations and what can we learn from them?

Donors give the most to organizations whose mission best corresponds to their own value systems and/or those with whom they enjoy the closest and deepest emotional connections. The two are inter-related in that donors grow closer to causes that share and advance their values, and become more aligned with an institution’s values if it nurtures deeper emotional ties with them.

Yet many philanthropy-seeking institutions diminish their perceived philanthropic value by:

  1. Speaking to the functions they perform rather than the values that underpin them. West Point, for instance, does more than prepare officers; it asks them to live by a lifelong code of “Duty, Honor, Country.” The articulation of that code taps into something far deeper, and therefore creates a more powerful connection .
  2. Failing to show donors how gifts advance institutional values. Even when institutions espouse deeper values, they don’t always link them to their fund-raising initiatives. A university may say it is committed to admitting students on scholastic merit, then finding a way of meeting their financial needs, for instance, but they must show donors how each new gift is creating a new opportunity for another worthy striver. Too many prospects are subjected to too many requests to give to a worthy cause without being shown the growing human impact of their giving. If they are asked to give more merely to maintain the status quo, the philanthropic value of that organization will decline in their estimation.
  3. Soliciting before eliciting the value systems of those that might support them and, therefore, failing to understand and align with them.
  4. Forgetting to reinforce donors’ values systems or deepen emotional connection in their gift recognition, donor relations and stewardship functions. Value systems can sometimes be most effectively reinforced through the use of symbol and ritual in various events but very few organizations think in these terms. Imagine if “grateful patients” who had given generous gifts were invited back to the medical center where they had been treated each year for a “State of Care” address, either about all the center is doing to in general to provide more sophisticated and human care, or about a particular “center of excellence” such as cardiovascular or cancer care. Imagine further if that medical center arranged for their grateful patients to have their cars valet parked and be greeted by a member of the staff who personally ushered them to the auditorium where the address was to take place. Imagine further if at the front of the auditorium there was a receiving line of staff, nurses and docs celebrating their arrival and, symbolically, their survival. Imagine further still if they were then led to VIP seating in the front of the auditorium and recognized at the outset of the address by the most prominent personage at the center who said, “We want to start this ceremony by celebrating not what we have done or are doing but what you have achieved. We want to not only share with you what we have learned and what we hope to accomplish but to ask that you share with us so that we may learn from your inspiring example. “ And, finally, imagine if they left with some simple pin or certificate that somehow signified that they were the heroes of the hospital’s medical staff. This reversing of the spotlight, away from us and on to them, of celebrating the survivor through the imaginative use of ritual, is exactly what has allowed the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure to enjoy such significant fund-raising success.

When philanthropy-seeking organizations listen to and align with the values of those that might support them, they create communities of purpose. When they work with their potential supporters to carefully define the larger possibilities of those shared purposes, they create the foundation for productive philanthropy. When the stop expecting their supporters to laud their accomplishments and begin bestowing recognition of the achievements of those who have and might support them, they begin the process of building reciprocal relationships, of giving and receiving. As they do, their perceived philanthropic value grows and their connection to their supporters, and their supporters' affinity for them, deepens.

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