How philanthropists really decide where to give

The natural place to start, as a fundraiser, is at your desk. You judiciously read every webpage, article and report about a potential funder’s strategy in search of the best fit between a donor and the work you are doing.

And then, research completed and grant application submitted, you’re surprised to figure out that the fit isn’t there after all. The pieces don’t snap together cleanly, your proposal has been turned down. Then what?

Perplexed, you may head back to your desk to do a little more research.

Please don’t, because the answer you’re looking for is not somewhere on the screen or hidden away in a Google cache.

Philanthropy – whether a $25 donation to an Indiegogo campaign or a multimillion dollar grant from a huge foundation – is always personal. The published philanthropy strategies you are researching are a sensible narrative that pulls together a bunch of threads, but they are not the whole truth. Far from it.

Think of it from the other side: there simply is no such thing as the best place to give a donation (heck, there’s no such thing as a best car) so there’s no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer no matter how much they spent trying to figure out the problem.

All the best philanthropists I know have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, courage, and, and, and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping track, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO.  Not by a long shot).

Walking in the Rain

I’ll admit it, I’m terrible at checking the weather. It’s just not part of my morning routine. So, even though I spend 30 minutes a day walking to and from the train and to my office, more often than is reasonable I end up trudging through a downpour as everyone around me pops open their umbrellas.

So the starting point here is that it’s on me.

That said, the other day, while I walked home from the train in the leafy suburb I call home, the rain turned from steady to torrential. I was apparently one of few people who was surprised by this turn of events, since, as I got out of the train, the line of cars waiting to pick up passengers was 30 deep rather than the usual 5 to 10.

As I slowly made my way up the hill, my light blue shirt having turned a deep shade of violet from the downpour, I scanned the lineup of cars, looking for a familiar face. And, when it became clear that I didn’t know any of the drivers, I couldn’t help but wonder: is anyone going to give me a wave and a nod and offer me a warm dry seat?

Apparently not.

Why does no one roll down the window to help? To boil it down, how we act in these situations is the result of our assessment of four things:

  1. How dire is the need of the person?
  2. What is the perceived social cost and benefit of action?
  3. How much do I perceive that I, and I alone, am responsible for taking an action?
  4. In the story I tell myself about myself, how do I act in these sorts of situations?

Put this way, it’s pretty clear why I got drenched on my walk home: my need was far from dire (it’s just a bit of rain); it is mildly socially awkward to invite someone in to your car; lots of people could help so we have a Kitty Genovese situation (bystander effect) going on; and….well, what about #4?

This last one – the story we tell ourselves about “how do I act in situations where I have the opportunity to help?” – this strikes me as the wildly unaddressed leverage point for anyone in the social change business.

Since launching my Generosity Experiment in 2008 I’ve been trying to understand what it takes to unlock the sense, in myself and in others, that in situations where help can be given, more of us will be the kind of people who chose to act.

While this is lifelong work, as I trudged through the rain I reflected on some of the things I think I’ve learned so far:

That everyone starts in a different place, and that these starting points come first and foremost from the values we were taught at a young age.

That there are real, powerful social norms that hold us back from acting.

That pushing against these norms creates real discomfort. And that pushing through this discomfort creates a giddy sense joy that can be addicting.

That one of the most important jobs that social groups perform is to tilt these norms in favor of care of others….and that, as these social norms become weaker as societies modernize, and as we hide behind our screens, car windows, and devices more and more, it is the job of new actors to set a new set of norms.

That, for those folks who routinely do more than the least that’s expected of them, their work began with a decision it’s not enough just to believe we all have the same potential. What’s required is living that belief through actions.

That part of the story we need to tell ourselves is that it (whatever “it” is) is up to us, not to someone else.

That, like everything else in life, the first step towards living more generously is the belief in and commitment to making a change in ourselves. It is in that moment of decision, and in the actions that reaffirm that decision, that we open up a new conversation about who we are and what we can become.

That there’s a profound sense of alone-ness in the world, and that finding moments to break through by creating a personal connection is one of the most powerful things we can do.

And, like everything else in life, we must find the balance of pushing ourselves to be better and forgiving ourselves for our limitations today.

In the end, I didn’t mind so much getting wet – my kids certainly didn’t seem to care when they ran to greet me as I got home.

Plus, if I am honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I’d have opened my door for me walking by. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

And yes, I’m also working on remembering to bring an umbrella.

 

 

Why I (like everyone) gave to ALS while on vacation

A friend and colleague asked me.

It was personal and I didn’t want to let him down.

It was (a little bit of) a challenge to how macho and bold I could be.

It was public.

Turning something like this down, given who I am and my values, would be just a little bit shameful.

Everyone was doing it.

It was fun.

I could talk to my kids about it and get them involved in it.

It was easy and quick to do.

I could share it with friends in a way that felt totally positive – without putting them out. In fact, many friends said “Thank you! I was hoping to be challenged.”

It incorporated video, and allowed me, in 30 seconds, to create a video I was happy to post and that I knew would be entertaining (no edits, no storyboards, no nothing).

Did I mention how fun it was?

That’s a pretty good list to choose from for how you fundraise. I’m positive you won’t hit all of these, but if you’re hitting none of them then you’re pushing a rope uphill.

And the really tricky bits that I can’t stop thinking about are:

I did give to ALS, but most people won’t. That’s totally fine as long as what you create is huge.

The specifics of the organization I was giving to, and the cause, didn’t matter. This would have worked for any cause.

I talked to my kids about ice water not about ALS.

Pretty quickly my head starts to swirl about ends and means, whether (some? all?) philanthropy should be fun and what is lost when it is fun (and what doesn’t happen when it’s not).

When giving is more like eating dessert than it’s like eating your vegetables, is that a problem? Certainly not, today, for the folks suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

(and for those keeping track, the ALS Association has now raised nearly $100 million from 3 million donors…versus about $23 million last year).

What if he’s conning me?

“What if this story this guy is telling me isn’t true? What if he, 70 years old, scraggly hair, sitting in a wheelchair, knee brace on his left leg, with a couple of bags and a book on his lap, didn’t really lose his place in Hurricane Sandy? What if that’s not what pushed him over the edge and shoved him back into a life of homeless shelters and benefits checks that don’t go far enough?”

Sure, that goes through my head.

But as I stand there listening I cannot help but stand face-to-face with my own good fortune, all the challenges I don’t face every day, all the barriers that aren’t in my way.

So, instead, I endeavor to think, “maybe this is a chance to help. Maybe a little bit will make a difference. Maybe experiencing the indignity of asking for money on the subway is something that this articulate guy shouldn’t have to go through.”

Maybe the chance to help even a little is a chance worth taking.

How generosity touched you

Not long ago, a group of senior executives asked me to speak to them about generosity.  So I started the conversation by asking each of them to share what generosity meant to them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but what I heard back were examples of niceties – I volunteered a bit here, I helped someone with something there.  It was probably my mistake to open a conversation with a new group and expect that folks would take the opportunity to be vulnerable.  I should have laid the groundwork first.  Nevertheless, it was telling.

At times I’ve been surprised with negative reactions to talk of generosity and Generosity Day.  That day – hearing example after example of nice, kind, but mostly peripheral acts of generosity from a group that I knew had much deeper stories to tell – helped me understand what was going on in a new light.

I’ve been purposely exploring generosity for nearly five years now, and while I humbly admit that my own practice of generosity is still very much a work in process, my points of reference when hearing the word “generosity” are profound, textured, nuanced, and potentially very deep.  Generosity and giving are cornerstones of cultural practices dating back thousands of years; they are bedrocks of all the major religions; generosity is one of the five yamas in the eight-limbed path of yoga!

That’s the opposite of small, the antithesis of trite.

Nevertheless, just because that is my experience of generosity does not mean that is what others hear.  If someone’s conscious engagement with generosity is limited, when they hear talk of “generosity” their minds can naturally avoid things that are deep, grounded, or profound.

If I could restart the conversation I had with that group of executives, I would ask a different question.  Not “what does generosity mean to you?” which somehow got people to talk about when they had been generous, but “when has someone else’s generosity made a difference in your life?”  I’ve been amazed with how consistently I hear poignant stories of generosity when people are freed to answer this question.  People see others’ better angels.  Small, fleeting acts from decades ago are revealed to be seminal milestones in peoples’ lives.

I just heard about an effort to raise $60,000 on Indigogo to produce a movie called The Perfection of Giving.  I thought the trailer looked good and that you might want to check it out.

If I have one wish for the project, it would be that it move beyond the more obvious focus – how a practice of generosity transforms the giver – and delve deeper into how acts of generosity changed the lives of recipients (and, equally interesting, to uncover the countless acts of generosity practiced daily by people who do not, by external appearance, seem to have a lot to give).  I know all good stories need a protagonist, I just think the message is most powerful when we can share others’ stories, rather than describe our own experience of transformation.

So: when has generosity touched you?

Perfection of Giving

I am generous when…

My daughter made this poster for a project in her Kindergarten class.  The assignment was to finish the sentence: “I am generous when…”

In case it’s hard to read: “I am generous when I have a lot of books and my little sister wants some I let hear her have some.”

Life used to be simple and we made it complicated.

Makes me think about finishing that same sentence from time to time.

Zoe_generous

Generosity Day – is it about the money?

Our stories hold truths for us.

One of my truths is that my journey into generosity began with an encounter with a person on the NYC subway asking for money (FOR homeless people, he was not himself homeless as far as I know).

Saying “No” in that situation makes a lot of sense.  If you don’t believe that, check out Zorro’s very personal comment to yesterday’s post.  He said that his son is homeless, that if someone gives his son money that money will be spent on drugs, that giving to his son is irresponsible behavior.

I don’t know the big answer to the question that Zorro is asking.  My personal answer has been that saying “no” all the time and automatically made me feel less human; and I also don’t believe that every dollar given to a homeless person makes that person worse off.

Even though my story started there, Generosity Day isn’t, for me, about whether or not I give to the homeless.  That said, at the outset, I did feel like giving money more freely was a critical ingredient (the critical ingredient?) to my own practice of generosity.  Four years in, I don’t feel that as strongly, but I still ask myself whether an active practice of giving is essential to a practice of generosity.  Put another way, can I fully explore generosity without directly confronting my relationship to money?

This is one in a long list of questions that’s a work-in-process for me, but here’s where I am today: in today’s society money plays a huge role in defining us.  It is one of our scorecards and an important source of our identity.  (Ugly to say that out loud, but it feels like a fair generalization).  And I think that part of seeing abundance and our good fortune in the world is letting go more of the money we have.  This is where the ancient notion of tithing comes from – that our good fortune flows from the blessings we have received, and part of our work on earth is to share these blessings with others.  (Even if a conversation with religious or doctrinaire underpinnings isn’t your cup of tea, I think it’s impossible to look at the world – the whole world – and deny that some or even most of my or your good fortune is due to accidents of birth.  We won a lottery we never knew we’d entered.  At yet, ironically, it is mostly up to us to decide what to do with that abundance.)

That said, my own practice of giving money is still evolving.  These are hard, challenging, very personal questions.  Broadly, I do give more than I used to and, as important, I agonize much much less about each time I give.  I experience less scarcity.  And that feels right to me.

I also know that this is only part of the equation.  These days I’m as interested in generosity of spirit, the generosity of a heartfelt apology, the generosity of giving time to help another, the generosity of putting yourself out there and (really truly) expecting nothing in return.  So today, for where I am, money is not the focus of my own inquiry, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.  That said, I do feel that a practice of generosity, a practice of recognizing and sharing abundance, must impact to how we think about, hold on to, and let go of our money.

My hope for this year’s Generosity Day is that people will share their own stories of generosity – the questions they ask themselves, the insights they’ve gained, the fears they confronted (or failed to confront).  Simple stories.  Happy stories.  Hard stories.  Stories that make you laugh.

Stories about what they did on Generosity Day – and before and after.

Fun tools on the Generosity Day site make it easier to commit today to what you’ll do tomorrow. Or just throw a #generosityday into your online updates and we’ll see it!