Why do you give your time or money to help others? Why don’t you give more? What sort of world are you striving to help create? Why? How much money is enough for you and your family – can you afford to give more? What are your obligations to society? Do they differ locally, nationally or globally? What are your obligations to your family and future generations?
The philosophical underpinnings of philanthropy often begin simply but quickly become complicated as the details are explored and often raw nerves exposed. Where do our beliefs come from and how are they developed? How do they shape our approach to giving?
It’s a difficult subject and often tied with religious beliefs in which there is a level of consistency amongst practices that speaks to the universality of human compassion.
There is the Jewish value of tikkun olam, a Hebrew term from the Torah that means “repair the world.” This was one of the guiding principles of Brad Handler who helped Pierre Omidyar set up his foundation.
The Quran says: “But righteous is the one who… gives away wealth, out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free”.
It can be a deeply personal issue. This is perhaps why few organisations on the trip seemed willing to engage at this level. While happy to discuss goals and strategy, the underlying philosophy, with a few exceptions, was a difficult subject.
The Gates Foundation was such an exception – their stated philosophy is “We believe every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life”. From there, their goals and strategies emerge – to meet the greatest needs with the greatest impact. In a highly emotive field, they strive for measurable accountability in their work.
On the issue of obligations to future family generations, the Hewlett family behind the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation echoed Warren Buffet’s principle of ‘leaving enough for their children to do something but not enough to do nothing’. They talked also of the process of making the philosophy of charity part of the family and teaching it down through generations.
Philosophy is important. It provides the principles that guide the mission, the strategy and goals. Being clear about it guides giving and helps avoid conflicts later. This is particularly so when emotions come into play.
Serious social and environmental problems abound with tear-inducing stories that may resonate with personal experience and views.
Why does one person give to cancer research and another to the arts? We have probably all read an email that begins with a personal revelation that is tied to the request for a donation. It provides context, it explains motivations and invites empathy.
In the competitive market of charitable donations, appealing to our emotions is an unavoidable part of the marketing drive and unites us to tackle the task at hand. It also plays a part in bringing around social change.
We learnt of the important role of story telling in philanthropy. For example, the Skoll Foundation is involved in financing and producing films with a social cause including successes like Good Night, Good Luck (open media) and Contagion (pandemics). Story telling plays a powerful role in change and motivation.
Emotion can form a strong component of why people give money and time for the benefit of others. It can be an integral part of the joy and reward of giving. It drives people to try harder and do better – sometimes the most rewarding times are when working the hardest and being paid the least while working for a cause we feel strongly about.
It’s about finding the perfect storm between a strong interest or passion you have, what you can offer and someone else’s need.
It is also a potential danger. One of the dangers is that it will override a more logical and strategic approach to fulfilling charitable goals – is the issue that prompts the strongest emotional response the most important issue? There is nothing wrong with giving to the issue that appeals most to your emotion, particularly if that is what prompts you into action but is it the most strategic and optimal use of resources towards your goals? Is it being pursued for reasons other than a good being done for others?
Indeed, logic and emotion are not the only factors at play. There are others such as peer pressure and societal expectation – its no easy task turning down a friend’s request to help their charity of choice if you’d actually prefer to support others.
These are deeply personal and difficult issues that I do not hear often discussed but when you start the conversation everyone has an opinion. For me, it highlights the importance of clarifying the guiding philosophy and from that identifying the goals and strategies that follow.
It is not to diminish the importance or power of emotion but to be cognisant of balance.
We learnt of the importance of gap analysis to identify the problems that need the most attention rather than those that just have our attention – for example, the Gates Foundation does not give to cancer research. They say it’s an area that is already well funded. They believe they can have a greater impact with less popular challenges elsewhere.
The drive towards maximum impact was common theme as these organisations look for the most effective and efficient use of their resources. They tended to look for funding opportunities that:
- Related to matters of great social need;
- Involved innovative steps;
- Would lead to an ‘inflection point’ or ‘catalyst role’ – that is, their investment would be at a critical juncture for the issue or organisation so that it will bring large benefits.
Clear criteria for funding helps ensure that resources are applied to their maximum effect – rather than solely personal or emotional motivators.
- Be aware of the role of emotion and other external factors in the decision making process
- A donor’s clear philosophies, goals and strategies can help play a balancing role
- Story telling is a powerful marketing and motivational tool
We all like to think of ourselves as good people. We all want to be good people but we also want to be seen to be good.
This desire can muddy the otherwise clear waters of altruism.
It makes me think of the Seinfeld episode of George putting money in the tip jar. He does so just as the waiter turns around. Worried that the waiter hasn’t seen how generous he is, he reaches in to extract it so that he can put it back in when the waiter is watching. The waiter turns around just as George’s hand is in the tip jar and assumes George is stealing…If George had given just for the love of giving and not in expectation of reward, he wouldn’t have had his generosity questioned and image tarnished.
The more we give, whether time or money, the more there are opportunities to be recognised as good. A smile, a word of thanks, a sticker, a pin on our jacket, an invitation to a fund-raiser, a corporate name on a website – your name on a foundation, on a building; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Lowy Packer Building …
Many people give anonymously and doing so has the potential to liberate both the gift and the donor particularly if some charities are socially divisive. Doing so can be a useful exercise for a donor to focus on the recipient.
There is a balance to be struck, social recognition can be important, it can provide valuable leadership and inspiration to others as well as benefits to the organisation or the charities funded.
One recipient of Gates Foundation funding said that simply being able to say that you were funded by Gates was more valuable than the funding itself – it created a halo effect that attracted other donors. In the U.S, Gates and Buffett’s leadership in philanthropy has rippled throughout the world. Andrew and Nicola Forrest were the first Australian’s to sign up to the Giving Pledge to give more than half of their wealth away in their lifetime. In their public letter to Gates, they expressed a hope that their example “…will give others in fortunate circumstances pause.” I wonder why others have not followed.
Ego can however confuse, complicate and at worst erode good practice in philanthropy. It has the potential to impede:
- open and equal relationships with funding partners and grant recipients; and
- rational analysis and the most efficient use of resources.
The potential danger reinforces the need for clear philosophies, goals and strategies. Is there really a need for another not-for-profit in a particular sector? There are over 2 million of them in the US. Could the funds go to an existing organisation rather than establishing a new one with all the overlapping administrative costs that go with it? Is one of the goals in setting up a foundation to create a meaningful role for those funding it? If so, be clear and honest about it, plan for it and ensure you’re successful in that respect.
A recurring theme on the trip was the importance of humility on the behalf of the donors. Watch for ego and arrogance. You can’t have a good partnership without mutual respect and without a good partnership you’re unlikely to have a successful charity program.
One of the grant recipients we talked to quietly complained about the constant need to massage the egos of donors – some even employ staff for the task. The management of such egos should not be left to the grant recipients alone.
This is not to undermine the importance of ego and self but to again advocate awareness and balance. Altruism is an activity that is linked closely with individual happiness. Spending money on other people can bring more happiness than spending it on ourselves. It’s an inextricable part of why we give. We feel better when we do it. It can be deeply rewarding.
Nor is this to discourage people to stand up and be proud of charitable work. It’s an important part of inspiring others but laced with difficulty and cultural nuance. Donors can just as likely expose themselves to praise as unwanted attention. It’s a deeply personal issue and people should be free to take the approach that works best for them.
It’s a balancing process. It requires awareness. Whatever the path, it can be done with grace, respect and humility.
- be aware of ego in the philanthropic processes
- clear philosophies, goals and strategies will help guide the right balance between altruism and individual goals and needs
- philanthropy needs public leaders to help inspire others and promote dialogue
The next in the series is Peculiar Philanthropy – 3. The Relationship Between Donor and Recipient