Philanthropy in all of its Humanness

The only bond worth anything between human beings is their humanness. – Jesse Owens

The April 2015 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy provided an interesting study in contrasting approaches to giving and fundraising.

The Chronicle covered the release of ethicist Peter Singer’s new book The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. Many other news outlets covered the book release, so Singer and the effective altruism movement have been popping up in philanthropy and nonprofit social media frequently this month.

Effective altruism proponents ask us as donors or grantmakers to set passion and self-interest aside and instead rely on data and reason in making your charitable decisions. They want us to continually ask a critical question, “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?” They raise tough challenges, such as the morality of using $1,000 to help a local art museum instead of providing lifesaving medicine to many third world residents. And, they urge us to give higher amounts of our income and net worth away, especially to people and countries in the most need. Their challenges are thought-provoking and can seem reasonable, though they ask us to follow their framework for “the greatest difference” rather than our own.

Peter Singer, Eric Friedman, and other effective altruism advocates are adding to more than a century of advocacy for scientific philanthropy and strategic philanthropy – giving based in the head rather than the heart. Nonprofits have experienced the result of that advocacy through increased requests for logic models, theories of change, evaluation plans, and evidence-based practices.

But, we humans make very few decisions purely based on logic and reason.

Impure altruism

The Chronicle’s April issue also featured the long story, Scientists to Charities: You’re Doing It All Wrong, and related content. The articles highlighted 20+ years of research into how people make decisions and what motivates our charitable impulse, with a hub of newer research centered at the Science of Philanthropy Initiative. A mix of behavioral economics, neuroscience, psychology, and other sciences has proven that the effective altruists will win few long-term converts.

We are all deeply motivated by impure altruism. We give primarily because it makes us feel good, because we want to feel important, and because we want to appear generous to others. Despite what the strategic philanthropy experts and effective altruists might tell you, these motivations aren’t wrong and it is extremely difficult, maybe unnatural, to set them aside. They are essential parts of our humanness and our need to emotionally connect with and trust others.

At least 87% of philanthropy is driven by individual giving, sometimes through donor-advised funds or family trusts. It is driven first by impure altruism, human values and emotions, fallible thinking, and interpersonal trust. (And trust is already in short supply).

The Chronicle articles provide sound advice for how fundraisers can use the research to improve their communications with donors. They add to the research-based fundraising and communications advice offered by the Network of Good a few years ago in Lisa Simpson for Nonprofits and Homer Simpson for Nonprofits. And they connect with the growing number of popular books on behavioral economics and cognitive biases by Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and many others.

Hey, this applies to you too, foundation staffers

Hold on there, philanthropoids. Philanthropy at foundations and companies is also driven by human beings, with only the occasional robot overlord in charge. It is too easy to dismiss the impact of this research and believe that our academic, management, and grantmaking credentials help us override our humanness. (In fact, research shows the more expertise we have, the more likely we are to fall into some cognitive traps).

We’d be wise to study up on the research cited in the Chronicle and other sources. How could that research improve a foundation’s communications with nonprofits? How could it improve advocacy and public interest campaigns? How could it improve a capacity building effort for key grantees? And, how could it improve internal communications and dialogue between and among staff, board members, and donor family members?

Understanding the drivers of generosity and human irrationality helps us improve our grantmaking and other philanthropic strategies. Our collective humanness informs our organization’s internal culture and the culture of its interactions with customers and partners. And, as management guru Peter Drucker noted, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Most importantly, how can each of us learn about and fully admit to our own humanness and fallibility? For guidance, we can thank the Center for Evaluation Innovation for How Shortcuts Cut Us Short: Cognitive Traps in Philanthropic Decision Making. This should be a “must read” for foundation staffers and members of grantmaking committees. It helped me uncover and challenge my own faults and watch for them during discussions in grantmaking committees.

We shouldn’t have to give up our humanness to be effective donors or philanthropoids. But, we can definitely use this research, and even the effective altruists’ challenging questions, to grow and evolve as generous people.

Are Your Trustees Satisfied?

I’m always interested in why donors choose different means of formalizing their giving and the ever-expanding set of options they have to do so. Because of that, I read the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent report What Donors Value: How Community Foundations Can Increase Donor Satisfaction, Referrals, and Future Givingand related blog posts.

In a survey of more than 6,000 donors of 47 community foundations, the Center found that:

  • The strongest predictors of donor satisfaction are donors’ sense of the foundation’s level of responsiveness when they need assistance and their perceptions of the foundation’s impact on the community. (The first predictor isn’t new information and the second one confirms community foundation’s hunches and hopes.)
  • 1 in 4 donors were “moderately satisfied” or less with their community foundation. (Oddly, the report glossed over this second point. I don’t know what good business manager would be happy with that metric.)
  • A donor’s level of engagement wasn’t a driver of her or his satisfaction. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, but likely was to many community foundation staff).

I steward a multi-generation family foundation and am writing this while attending a symposium by the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Family foundations don’t have the pressures that community foundations create for themselves to grow assets, grow the number of donors with funds, and grow the number of donors who give to the community foundation’s initiatives. However, the report surfaced important questions for those of us in the family philanthropy business.

Shouldn’t family foundation staff worry about the satisfaction of our board members and/or trustees? For the most part, they choose to participate in these roles, even if that choice is coerced by other family members.

  • What would customer satisfaction metrics look like for family foundation board members? How would those metrics be different from those for other nonprofit boards?
  • What if 25% of your family foundation’s board members weren’t very satisfied with their experience with the foundation? How would that damage family dynamics behind the scenes and harm discussions at the foundation? How would that change their description of their experience to their friends and colleagues who sit on nonprofit boards?

And, shouldn’t family foundations pay attention to the report’s third point about engagement? Community foundations often set metrics for increasing the level of engagement of donors. Those metrics are often drawn from university fundraising models. The community foundations falsely presume that success means more donors moving up a ladder of participation in the community foundation’s activities, communications tools, and goals. As the Center’s report notes, donors can be satisfied even when they have, or desire, little or no involvement from the foundation in their giving decisions.

The majority of family foundations (and many donor-advised funds) are established as vehicles for families to give together and learn together about giving. Ideally, the foundations are safe places to learn and grow together. But it is easy for staff and founders to fall into the same trap as community foundations – that all board and family members desire to be fully engaged in the foundation’s work.

  • How do we ensure that our family foundations are safe places to learn and don’t force a one-size-fits-all approach for participation?
  • How do we design customer-centric experiences that meet our volunteers where they are? Can we allow them to flexibly dive in or dial back over time, perhaps learning from techniques of good network management models?
  • How do we blend the engagement expectations of founders or other family leaders with trends in how younger people choose to interact with organizations and choose to give of their time and skills? Especially for endowed foundations, how do we ensure that institutional culture doesn’t automatically turn people away?

Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers at this point and NCFP’s forum didn’t have sessions addressing the topics. I’ll be doing my own research on the issues and hope that you’ll feel free to send me good ideas and your own experiences.