By Richard Marker
Whew! The end of the year solicitation onslaught is over. It is safe to look at your email again – and even to open some of your snail mail. If an end of the year contribution was on your agenda, you have made sure it was paypal-ed or stamped by Saturday evening. Time to return to more contemplative and plan-ful philanthropy.
I am not an expert in fundraising at all but I have to assume that all of those solicitations work – at least for some. Do they persuade people who otherwise wouldn’t give or just provide that last-minute oomph to procrastinators? I am not sure.
What I do know is that around this time of year, because of what I do professionally, people often ask me why people give. If I listen to the question carefully, I usually see that there is an underlying bias by the person who asks: some are absolutely sure that a “tax deduction” is the driver. Others are convinced that guilt is a prime motivator. Fewer want to credit pure altruism. This year, a lot of folks believe that political fears are yielding more advocacy funding than ever. Social pressure to “give back” is often suggested, raising the question whether those funders would give at all if their peers weren’t giving as well. Among younger funders, “making a difference” surely is a major motivator. And, let’s not forget the insights from our friend and colleague, Jenny Santi, whose research demonstrated that giving can be a source of happiness.
Fortunately, our role is never to persuade someone to give; everyone with whom we work is already a “giver.” Our role is only to help them make good, ethical, and wise decisions. However, what we do know about giving motivation is that reductionism – that is looking for a single motivator – is wrong. No one’s philanthropic behavior can be reduced to a single cause. We are all complex beings, all of us, and it belittles the significance of philanthropy to try to reduce any individual’s giving to only one rationale.
However, when we work with funders and foundations, all of these reasons do come into play – not in whether to give but in making decisions where and how to give. When giving itself is no longer the question, knowing what will prove gratifying is. Sometimes that will determine recipients; more often it will determine how a grant or gift or contract is structured, what intended outcomes are to be, and what relationship a funder or foundation wishes to have with recipients of their funds.
In this context, self-awareness matters a lot, especially if there are family or board decisions. Knowing why one is drawn to or is averse to a particular request may have nothing to do with the legitimacy of the request or even how compelling it is, but everything to do with whether that proposal will align with our giving culture or style. And that culture or style is very much influenced by underlying values and attitudes toward the proper role of philanthropy or government, what we think is the essential nature of human beings, one’s relationship to peer groups, and more. None of these is necessarily more legitimate than another, but knowing what comprises our own drivers, and understanding the complex motivations of those around our giving table may make all the difference in how we end up feeling about the funding decisions we make.
And, as clients and students of ours can attest, that applies whether our giving reflects New Year’s Eve procrastination or New Year strategies.
Richard Marker advises funders and foundations on their philanthropy strategy through Wise Philanthropy, and teaches philanthropists and foundation professionals at both Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and NYU Academy for Funder Education.