Intentional Philanthropy: Geographic Considerations

[This article is part of a series on the interactions between local and national funders ignited by the Jewish Funders Network (JFN). To read more about the series, see the introductory post here].

by Jeffrey R. Solomon

In our first book, The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan, Charles Bronfman and I noted that one of the largest problems in philanthropy is the lack of intentionality of many, if not most, donors as they give money away. Here are some of the most intentional people on earth, using laser-like focus to accumulate substantial wealth, and yet when faced with philanthropy’s overwhelming conundrum: having to constantly decide between right and right, they shy away and avoid the discipline that is, in the words of Peter Drucker, not an attribute of business, but an attribute of greatness.

Thoughtful, intentional philanthropists seek to be strategic. While there are many strategic questions and an infinite range of possible strategic directions, one question which is the subject of considerable debate is, “Should my philanthropy be local, national or, indeed, global?”

Charles and I note that discipline calls on us to divide our philanthropy into three buckets: autobiographical giving that represents our families or our traditions, such as to our alma mater, our Federation or United Way; relationship giving, which we do because of our relationship with another who is involved in a given charitable enterprise; and strategic giving that sears our soul and helps fulfill our personal mission.

Meanwhile, Paul Schervish, professor at Boston College and primary researcher in the area of donor motivation, notes that the major change in the past generation has been from donors giving to nonprofits whose mission they support to donors giving to those nonprofits which help them achieve their personal mission. This Copernican switch is profoundly important in organizations building their own development strategy with major donors. We also know that donors want to follow their money, with transparency and accountability. They want impact, leverage and often want to involve their family, most especially their children and grandchildren.

The giving categories and trends in what donors really want have implications for the geographic parameters of giving. One can have a global or national strategy and still be giving significant support locally because of the first two elements of the giving. Being a good citizen, I believe, is a sine qua non to being a good philanthropist. Good citizenship means contributing to the community, be that to the United Way, Federation or other community-wide charitable entity. Good citizenship means being there in times of emergencies and disasters (be they local, national or global). The geographic separations are quite permeable and rarely fixed.

Further, in the area of autobiographical giving, issues like family mobility make the choice of strategic giving locally a more challenging one. Very often we see donors who are giving in a number of communities, those represented by various family members. While we know that 70% of philanthropic giving is local, we don’t have a set of guidelines regarding the implications in selecting local giving as distinguished from national or global.

Additionally, in the area of relationship giving: As noted, leverage is something that most donors are seeking. It is naïve to believe that leverage is simply one philanthropist’s picking another pocket for her/his project. There are gradations of partnership that require understanding and discipline in order to successfully build a long-term partnership. There is also the need to be ready to listen and respond to the ideas and passions of other philanthropists. While there are a few one-way partners in the Jewish philanthropic space, they rarely get to the sustainable position because of the one-way partnership.

The permeability of the geographic issue is an opportunity. A donor who wishes to support first-time Jewish camping subsidies in her/his community is taking advantage of a national model and applying it locally. This is no less true for the philanthropist who supports local implementation of P.J. Library or helps to reduce a local waiting list for Birthright Israel. “Think globally, act locally” is as valid in Jewish life as it is in the environmental movement. We grow up with a sense of concentric circles as the key to our responsibilities, starting with family, community and moving outward. This largely explains the donor bias to local giving. Yet, as donors expect a more sophisticated level of accountability, the local-national-global consortia can reduce the tension between local and national/global giving and create a complementary model that serves all. Clearly, we still need the dreamers who envision world-changing philanthropic approaches and provide the risk capital to create and nourish them. We simply have to reduce the heat between the advocates of local giving and those of national giving so that we create the interdependence that moves the needle.

In conclusion, a local-national-global perspective is one of a series of strategic determinations that intentional philanthropists consider. Many frameworks for these exist, and interdependence may be the one which is most productive. I am pleased to join my fellow panelists in this Jewish Funders Network article series in sharing frameworks for considering these decisions.

Jeffrey R. Solomon is President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.