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.

Signals from the future pulp rectangle

Signals from the Future? (part 1)

Signals from the future pulp rectangleOver the summer, I read a number of reports and articles that tracked trends in philanthropy. These “signals from the future” are the basis for a small series of blog posts.

In June, the Monitor Institute released the What’s Next for Community Philanthropy toolkit for community foundations and their peers. The toolkit kicks off with a report that all types of grantmakers and grantseekers should find valuable, Shift Happens: Understanding How the World is Changing.

Shift Happens summarizes data and other analyses around six categories of global trends that will alter local communities in the next decade:

  1. Changing faces – the new majority in the U.S., immigration, Millennials, and Baby Boomers
  2. Emerging technologies – growing connectedness, big data, information access and sharing
  3. Divided communities – economic inequality, social capital, political polarization, race and ethnicity
  4. Future economy – knowledge economy, globalization, localism, innovation and entrepreneurship
  5. Environmental uncertainty – climate change, disaster efforts, sustainability
  6. Changing philanthropy – donor choice, power of the crowd, responsible business, impact investing, government devolution

To be sure, not all trends will reach all communities in the same way or same timeframe. But, the report would serve as a great discussion item for staff and board meetings and as a useful backdrop for strategic planning efforts. The report’s sections can be downloaded separately and the toolkit provides examples of nonprofits and foundations leaning into these changes.

I was particularly interested in the changing philanthropy section and its graphic of donors’ choices for effecting social change:

Donor choices

The graphic complements those used by Lucy Bernholz in her writing and consulting on the social economy. And, donors’ use of a wider range of social giving tools rings true for me, both in my own giving and in that of friends and colleagues in Pittsburgh and other cities.

Every few years, Monitor has released a report or toolkit helping donors and foundations look ahead. Before the new toolkit, it released What’s Next for Philanthropy: Acting Bigger and Adapting Better in a Networked World in 2010. Foundations and donor families that I knew largely ignored the report. Perhaps my set of relationships wasn’t a good gauge of the larger universe of grantmakers. Or perhaps the report was the right information at the wrong time, with most foundations, nonprofits, and communities in retrench mode as they dealt with the recession. Unfortunately, they lost the opportunity that crisis presents to significantly rethink an organization’s operations, mission, and processes.

It is too easy for grantmakers to ignore documents such as Shift Happens. Some will feel “too small to care” – their values-based giving, passion for existing grantees, and/or internal family dynamics taking priority over any external trends. Many will feel “too big to fail” – using their large endowments and history to bypass or actively work against trends. And others will feel “too shocked to shift” – becoming overwhelmed with the scale of the trends and unable to discern how their grantmaking can react.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t worry about institutionalized philanthropy paying attention to Shift Happens. Institutionalized philanthropy – endowed foundations, corporate foundations, and government grantmakers – may not be built for accommodating those shifts. As former foundation CEO Gara Lamarche wrote in his recent Democracy and the Donor Class article:

Courageous risk-taking is not what most people associate with foundations, whose boards and senior leadership are often dominated by establishment types.

The current and future generations of donors are more diverse and likely more collaborative than their predecessors. Hopefully, they’ll lead the way in more nimble, creative responses to the signals from the future in Shift Happens.