You Don’t Need to Be Rich to Be a Philanthropist

The other evening, at a wonderful benefit event, honoring two genuinely deserving people who represent a new generation of philanthropic leadership, I had another one of those predictable conversations. “How much money does one need to have to utilize someone like you?” they asked. A question I am asked, in one form or anther, all the time.

[In my case it is an easy answer: it doesn’t matter. I charge everyone by the project, not by the depth of one’s pocket or the scope of one’s giving.]

Implicit in the question is that only the ultra rich or the super rich, or at least the very rich can afford the kind of advisory services which can make one a better, wiser, or more sophisticated. Only the rich can really be philanthropists.

This is not true. The difference between being charitable and being a philanthropist is having a strategy. Since everyone, no matter how wealthy or stretched, says “no” to most requests and solicitations, and “yes” to a few, what matters is if one has thought through those decisions. The amount of one’s giving may determine what honors one may be offered, or to what boards one may be invited, or in what social group one is included, but it doesn’t determine if one has earned the title philanthropist.

We all know of very wealthy, even very generous people whose charitable giving seems to follow no evident logic. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with being an undisciplined altruist. No one should judge another’s personal choice of where to give his or her own money, and no organization should ever presume that they have an automatic or implicit claim on anyone’s giving. And many of these people who give without a plan support wonderful causes.
However, without a thought-through strategy and an understanding of what impact one wishes to have, there is also a chance that the same giving will be less well spent and the impact diminished.

It used to be harder but not today. Anyone of more limited means [which means the vast majority of us] can think and make decisions like the Forbes 400.

One can be a savior of a vulnerable small organization providing after school programs or in-school arts supplies for a few hundred dollars each year. I know of several cases where $250 was sufficient for an organization or project to begin to make a difference. That is a mere $5 per week, less than a single vente cappuccino.

Moreover, there are a growing number of websites and social networking sites which allow one to choose a cause or project at whatever price point is comfortable. Just as a staffed foundation may receive proposals for substantial support, so can anyone look to education offerings, or environmental projects or social justice needs which are listed for anyone to fund.

Even the assessment of the proposals or soliciting organizing can be transparent – Guidestar, for example, allows anyone to view a tax return of any non profit [or even a private foundation in case you want to emulate its approach].

What matters more than these technologies, though, is the intentionality. It is the opportunity to focus one’s resources, of whatever size, to manifest your values, priorities, style, and commitments. It is the opportunity to invite one’s family into a discussion about what your values may be and your legacy to the world. It is the opportunity to know that one’s giving can be effective, impactful, and coherent. And it is the opportunity to know that the world can be a little different because of your thoughtfulness.

How much you have need not be a limitation to be a philanthropist. How much you give is not necessarily a measure of your philanthropy. How you strategize about your giving can do both, and will prove more gratifying at the same time.

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, is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy and blogs at Wise Philanthropy.