How Much Do You Need To Be a Philanthropist

… The difference between being charitable and being a philanthropist is having a strategy. What do you want to accomplish? What values or priorities do you want your philanthropy to affirm [even if only to you]? Do you have a plan to help you decide which solicitations get thrown away or which phone calls get ignored or which friends – ouch – you say “no” to? If not, your generosity may be wonderful and admirable, but your charitability won’t make you a philanthropist. [Not that there is anything wrong with that]. There is, to my mind, no one single answer to what that strategy should be or even if it meets someone else’s objective criteria for what makes good philanthropy – but in general one can feel more gratified in one’ s giving if one has a good understanding of why and how one chooses to give.

Now clearly, if one has shallow pockets, all the strategy in the world is not likely to get you honored by the Metropolitan Museum. Which brings us to the issue of “making a difference.”

More than ever before, donors of small means can make a difference. Some choose to do it through such direct giving sites as “Donors Choose” or, in a slightly less direct way, through “Kiva”. These sites allow one to give directly, in a targeted way, and to be able to know exactly what impact that gift has made.

Others are well aware that we are living at a time of great innovation fervor. The non-profit social entrepreneurial sector can make immediate, and often measurable, use of quite modest investments, especially at the very earliest stages. One can be sure that those early believers will never be forgotten.

And still others become aware that there are discreet projects that might be below the radar screen of the larger donors, but can make all the difference. Mirele and I were once asked to subvent the reception of a concert on behalf of an environmental cause organized by some 20 somethings. For just north of $250, we were the lead funders for a wonderful evening which had a worthy beneficiary and engaged lots of younger adults. Or consider the undergraduates who were volunteering in a public school who learned that the arts budget was slashed – upon learning that only $250 allowed them to buy a month’s worth of supplies, they set about raising that. They most assuredly made a difference.

When headlines focus on the superrich, we might think of philanthropy as just another spectator sport. And at the levels that they are challenged to give, it is indeed. Their choices, as magnanimous and magnificent as they are, have little to do with their life style, and they typically have no shortage of advisors available to them to do lots of the heavy lifting of research, due diligence, and screening. As one who used to be CEO of a substantial foundation and who advises some such people even now, I am well aware of how different that experience is from the kind of choices most of us have to make and the way in which we may make them.

The philanthropy of the super-rich is hardly the standard for how much we need to have to make a difference. Philanthropy for the rest of us involves real choices and trade-offs, and involves time and energy which is precious indeed. All the more reason to celebrate that it matters. What doesn’t matter, though, is how much you have. Everyone has as much as one needs to be philanthropic – even if only you, and a cherished beneficiary know it.

Excerpted from How much do you need to…?

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning and blogs at Wise Philanthropy.