I’ve been thinking about philanthropy lately. And if you’re a fund-raiser I’m sure you have too.

I’ve been thinking about more than the day-to-day mechanics of fund-raising, which is often where we get caught up. For example, have you edited the next direct appeal letter yet? Is the data list up to date? Have you responded to the donor who wants to change their credit card number on file? All of these, and many more, are incredibly important necessary details of raising money. But I’ve been caught up in thinking about the big Why of it all.

Now, talking about Why is popular these days. I’m sure you’ve already seen it but if you haven’t, Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on Why is a solid 20-minute life investment.

The other day I was listening to a presentation about legacy giving in philanthropy. It struck me that the presenter was using the term in a way that I often hear fund-raisers using it: emphasizing philanthropy as the act of giving. In effect, the action of donating is the important element, not to whom the donation is made.

As fund-raisers, this is an important truism for our profession—if no one donates, we have no job. If we aren’t skillful in helping the act of donating, we can’t move our skills from one organization to another, regardless of the cause it supports. As fund-raisers, philanthropy is a beneficial habit for us to cultivate, through creating clear channels for our donors to give today, monthly, or as a legacy gift.

But sometimes this view of philanthropy drowns out another perspective. Instead of being so focused on the right channels to enabling ongoing donations, we forget that many gifts are made in response to a particular need or a cause, clearly articulated and widely shared.

Giving to meet a need or a cause is when I give to a particular cause because I’m so moved by the work they’re doing and believe that my donation makes a difference. We’ve witnessed this nationally with the outpouring of donations for Fort McMurry residents displaced by wildfires. I guess that many of these donations came from people who didn’t have an annual philanthropic budget, but were moved to respond to the call for assistance.

As fund-raisers we can name the wealthy philanthropists of our time, and we’re already planning our next approach for inclusion in their annual budget. Yet it’s important to remember that many people donate to organizations that have no charitable status, like Greenpeace, and therefore no tax benefits to donors. And many people give charitably across borders when their tax receipt makes no difference to their home government. People give, and give substantially, when the cause is on shaky ground as exposed in Three Cups of Deceit. And, most amazingly, they give even when it seems they don’t have enough for themselves, like these Syrian refugees who gave to the Fort McMurray relief fund.

Now, of course, at the end of the day we as fund-raisers must be aware of both perspectives.

Are your channels to receive donations clear and ready, so that someone can easily find and make a donation to your organization? Have you tested this process? Have you mentioned legacy giving on your website? Are you ready if someone would like to leave a gift in their will to your organization? If not, read Dave’s last article for hints on what you need.

On the other hand, does your messaging clearly articulate the need for donations? Using emotional language, can you talk about the difference your organization makes in people’s lives and the places we live in? Does your legacy giving brochure capture the why of a bequest, as well as the mechanics of deferred giving vehicles? If you’re not sure, talk to one of your donors and find out what inspired their giving. Who knows, you might find the next story
to use in your newsletter or appeal.

Don’t forget why your donors give, even in the middle of facilitating how they give.


In talking through my thoughts for this article with a friend, I was told that understanding philanthropy this way might be a generational perspective. What do you think? Leave your comment below.

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