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#282 It doesn’t have to be that hard

June 26th, 2017

Richard Marker

[This post is third in a sequence. It follows “Everyone Can be a Philanthropist, and it is Easier Than Ever”, posted 19 April 2015, and “How to be a Philanthropist on $5/week” [Saying ‘Yes” Wisely: Insights for the Thoughtful Philanthropist, 200 2011]

Among the very welcome developments in our field is that the tools for making informed philanthropy decisions are available to those with lesser means. No longer does one need the traditional intermediaries, nor need one be at the mercy of veritable sales pitches of charities that write, call, email, or stop you on the street. In the USA, there are organizations that rate public non-profits, and others such as Guidestar and the Better Business Bureau that can show if an organization is legitimate. Add to that manuals produced by wealth management companies, community foundations, advisory firms [including ours!], and more.

Yet, the very democratization that makes it possible for all of us to make decisions the way the ultra-wealthy do has made the process of being a responsible donor seem overwhelming, complex, and judgmental. And add to that the all too frequent, and despicable, examples of scams and phony charities that are covered by the media. Is it any wonder that many people are cynical and suspicious at the same time?

Much of my professional life for the last 20 years has been teaching and advising people who want to make informed, ethical, and wise decisions about one’s [or a foundation’s] philanthropic giving. It calls for methodologies and techniques about how to do that reflecting their underlying culture, values, and purpose. It can become complicated. Indeed, the one line I hear from potential clients more than any other is “this was harder than we thought it would be.”

But it doesn’t have to be. Let’s see if we can make this easier. Before getting into some “how-to’s”, a little analysis to guide us.

i. Most of us begin our philanthropy journey at the level of human compassion. We read of an earthquake, we see homeless people, we have a family member who is ill. That human compassion is the basis of charity. It leads us to donate our money, volunteer our time, contribute our used clothing.

There is an immediacy to compassion giving. Someone who was hungry is less so. Someone who has no place to sleep or keep warm now does. To the best of my knowledge, there is no culture or religion or ethnic group anywhere without a tradition of compassion and charity. Giving to a known church, synagogue, shelter, drop in center, or community fund, or even to individuals has a place and is often the pathway to more strategic philanthropy.

ii. It doesn’t take long to realize that none of us alone can feed all the hungry or house all the homeless. As much as we care and are touched every time we walk by someone lying in a doorway or begging in the park or subway, we know that there must be a more strategic way to spend our money and to solve the problem. There is probably an organization that already knows how to leverage our charitable gift to feed more, house more, clothe more, heal more than we could ever do alone.

When we begin to think strategically and make our decisions based on that approach, we transition from being charitable to being philanthropic. It means that we develop a basis for saying yes and no to all the requests beyond who happens to knock on our door or plays on our heart strings. We want to know who is doing it well, who knows how to use my share of the solution-pie most effectively or efficiently or thoughtfully.

It is at this level that it is easy to get stuck. Making decisions means that one needs to know who the players are, what is their approach, whom should we trust, and what our own priorities are. And it means that we have to accept that we will be saying “no” on a regular basis, even to causes that touch us deeply.

This is also the level at which externals play a greater role. We not only want to choose based on our priorities but the “best” within those priorities. Whose “best?” Is second best a waste of our precious resources? And what is all this about “impact” and “metrics” and “outcomes” ….? How is a simple funder to know?

Strategy, informed strategy, helps us choose among competitive choices to be sure, but rarely gets to root causes. For that we proceed to

iii. Systemic solutions. If the level of strategy gives us tools and a methodology to choose among competing options for our attention and resources, the systemic addresses the hope to eliminate the need once and for all, or at least to address the problem at a more macro level.

Let’s look at a single example: food insecurity. We know that giving a hungry person a sandwich alleviates his or her hunger for a little while. Our compassion inspires us to do just that. We have helped feed an individual or several individuals.

We know, though, that it is hardly a way to permanently eliminate food insecurity for that individual, to say nothing of an entire community. When we think strategically, we decide to support the local pantry, soup kitchen, and others that serve an entire community. That is surely a more efficient and comprehensive way than counting on our own generosity to distribute money and food.
However, we also are forced to wonder if this is necessary. In a nation that pays farmers not to grow certain foods, where grocery stores discard still edible produce at the same time many families must choose between rent, food or medicine each month and too many children go to school unfed. There is something wrong with that picture, and pantries alone cannot right that wrong. We see that advocacy for more humane and sustainable public policies and funding is necessary, that food insecurity is directly tied to minimum wages, that equitable distribution of healthy fresh food can make a difference in at-risk communities. Systemic funding allows us to go deeper – so that hunger can be consistently addressed, and that access to food is not dependent on the whims and good will of charitable volunteers.


Now to how to make this easy for those who are overwhelmed:

1. It is ok to say “no” without feeling guilty. In general, ignore phone calls unless it is from someone you know personally. ignore television ads, be cautious of those who stop you on the street. This is not to suggest that all of these people are scam artists or that all calls, ads, or solicitors are doing something unethical. But it is quite demanding to do the analysis to know which is which. No one can do it all.

2. It is ok to give to tried and true organizations. Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, United Way, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federations, the American Cancer Society, and many more have done good work for a long time and support many worthy and urgent needs. You may or may not feel strongly about all of their causes and recipients, and maybe they are not always on the cutting edge of impact, but there is a high reliability that the money will be responsibly, ethically, and legally allocated.

3. It is also ok to choose to support something newer, riskier, or more focused. Technology allows you to do so easily. Organizations such as Donors Choose or Kiva, to take just 2 well known and credible examples, allow you to contribute very directly and single mindedly knowing that your money is going exactly where you want it to. Just be cautious that you know the legal status of your gift. [This is a good example where a call to the Better Business Bureau can give you a quick and helpful answer.]

4. It is ok to give money to a local pantry or homeless shelter that you see is doing good work. [If you aren’t sure of their legal status, you may want to ask if they can show you proof of their tax-exempt status the first time you decide to give them money. Be aware, though, that in the United States, religious organizations are not required to have obtained that legal status] These shelters and pantries are typically doing something worthwhile even if they may or may not be state of the art.

5. It is ok to be passionate about a particular cause or organization and make that your primary or exclusive recipient. Volunteering time and expertise are wonderful contributions as well.

6. As we saw in III. above, it is always important to recognize the limits of philanthropy’s capacity, especially compared to the capacity of government – even at government’s radically reduced level. That is why it is constructive to support advocacy organizations as well as those directly supporting causes and individuals. Two illustrative examples, of many, are ACLU and AARP. Their persistent and consistent pursuit of policies reinforce the work of others on behalf of the powerless and elderly respectively in ways that no individual or local charity can ever do on their own. One can choose to join or support one or more of these kinds of advocacy groups so that you can, easily, leverage your own priorities.

Many readers will say that you are ready for more than this. You have the time, energy, and commitment to go through a more strategic and plan-ful process than this. That is great, and we have much more to talk about – in other posts, courses, in person, and elsewhere. But there are too many who, faced with the abundance of articles and press about big philanthropy, and the even more abundant solicitations, are overwhelmed and feel limited or guilty. These 6 points are for you.

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