Guiding Donors Through the Philanthropy Loop

Philanthropy LoopBy Rabbi Jay M. Stein

Being a fundraiser is kind of like acting as a sherpa; it’s my job to guide people on their philanthropic path. The problems facing the world can seem like insurmountable Everests, but fundraisers can help make those problems much more approachable. We work with people to find opportunities to not just give back, but to do so in a way that’s an expression of their values.

And it creates a virtuous cycle. When we do our job well, we can help people make philanthropy an ongoing source of meaning in their lives. I think of it as a philanthropy loop.

The five stages of the philanthropy loop are:

  1. Awareness: On TV, in the paper, on our Facebook feed, it’s nearly impossible to avoid news of war, starvation, environmental disasters, and many other problems facing the world. And because of this media saturation, it can feel like the world’s problems are too overwhelming to begin to tackle. Nonprofits have the power to offer people manageable ways to get involved in a cause, whether it’s by volunteering their time, coming to an event, or writing to their congressperson.
  2. Exploration: Many people are drawn to an issue by pathos. A moving speech, a gripping photo, a memorable interaction that pulls at the heartstrings can really connect a donor to a cause. But that emotional connection needs to be nurtured with information. The better informed someone is about combating poverty or strengthening Israeli society, for example, the more steadfast their involvement will be and the more powerfully they can make the case to others about its importance. There are so many great resources available that you can point donors toward, but sometimes the information you need isn’t available, so you have to go out and collect it. For example, every decade, UJA-Federation conducts a study of the demographics and needs of the Jewish population in New York.
  3. Giving: Today, giving is easier than ever; it’s often just a click away. But it’s important to note that in the philanthropy loop, giving is only the halfway mark. That’s because isolated giving often doesn’t bring a person closer to the cause they’re supporting. Giving a dollar to a homeless person on the street or buying a bake-sale brownie to support cancer research is less likely to help a person form a deep connection with those issues.
  4. Gathering: One person, no matter how generous or well informed, will have a hard time addressing the needs of an entire community. In the gathering stage, donors come together with each other and with professionals to decide how to best use the funds they’ve raised. Bringing together people with shared interests and a variety of backgrounds creates opportunities for donors to grow and learn from each other, and to reach a more nuanced understanding of the community’s needs.
  5. Gratification: To reach this point in the philanthropy loop, a donor must be passionate and committed. But it can be hard for people to maintain that passion over time without the satisfaction of seeing the results of their hard work. I get to witness this sense of gratification firsthand in my work with teens in UJA-Federation’s Center for Youth Philanthropy and Leadership.

A few years ago, one of the teens gave some of the money from his bar mitzvah gifts to build a well in a village in Ethiopia. Later on, he was able to go to Ethiopia and see the well that he funded. When he got back from that trip, he couldn’t wait to share the experience with his peers. The deep sense of gratification didn’t lead him to say, “I did my part,” but rather to say, “what more can I do?”

Rabbi Jay M. Stein is the director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Center for Youth Philanthropy and Leadership.