Giving With Purpose: Will It Stick? (part 1)

Written for and cross-posted at

learnbygivingfoundationThis summer, the Learning By Giving Foundation launched its Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on philanthropy, Giving With Purpose. News reports played up the fact that Doris and Warren Buffett were backing the course and that some nonprofits would receive “Buffett money” because of the course. That financial carrot likely drove the initial registration to upwards of 10,000 people.

I have to give kudos to the Learning By Giving Foundation and the course presenter, Rebecca Riccio. I’m thankful for their commitment to providing free philanthropy curricula, to openly experimenting with the still-evolving MOOC format for learning, and to being willing to learn from the feedback provided by thousands of course participants.

The course encourages people to “give with purpose” – described in two goals: a) satisfy their personal motivations for giving, and b) invest in high-performing organizations. In this post, I’ll cover my thoughts about the course as a whole and its ability to help participants understand their personal motivations for giving. I’ll write about the “invest in high-performing organizations” in the next post.

The Experience

The six-week course combines about an hour of video content with about an hour of  homework each week. There are a few short quizzes, but no final test and no grades assigned. Participants optionally choose to spend more time on the “Giver” track. Givers complete an initial online profile of a nonprofit to nominate it for a grant and assess six or eight other nonprofit profiles based on what they learn through the course. This summer, at least 1,300 participants also posted thoughts and commented on others’ posts on a Google+ Community.

Ms. Riccio delivers all of the educational content in short video segments. She also interviews donors ranging from Warren and Doris Buffett to the founders of Ben & Jerry’s (previews are available on YouTube.)

Ms. Riccio is often an engaging instructor and the course mercifully lacks endless slide decks. That said, if a student isn’t attracted to Ms. Riccio’s teaching style, he or she is out of luck. Some points are reinforced by visuals. However, new ideas often go by quickly or in quick lists of options that should be reinforced by written materials or downloadable slides. And, there isn’t always an easy connection between the videos and other online content. I don’t know if this disconnect is due to the Foundation’s first experimentation with online learning or to the limitation of the platform (Google’sCourse Builder). I do know there are more sophisticated online learning platforms available (the instructional firm In The Telling has one example).

At the end of the course, I was left with four questions.

1. Who is the target audience?

The course’s web site says it is “for students who are passionate about or interested in philanthropy.” It doesn’t define if it means the Learning By Giving Foundation’s traditional audience of college students or a broader audience. Judging by profile pictures in the Google+ community, most users this summer were adults.

The content is too basic for practiced philanthropists, philanthropic advisors, and foundation staff. But, I think these audiences would find the course useful:

  • College classes – while the content seems designed to stand on its own, people unfamiliar with the nonprofit sector or new to giving would benefit from a teacher or tutor providing context and reinforcing some points.
  • Giving circles – the content could be useful fodder for discussion in a giving circle and/or for new circle members who aren’t familiar with the basics of the nonprofit sector and options for giving. It could serve the same function for corporate giving offices to educate employees and service clubs to educate members.
  • Professional advisors – accountants, financial planners, and lawyers who don’t have charitable giving as part of their regular practice could use the course as a quick grounding. That said, see the caveat in the next question.
  • Staff, volunteers, and board members of nonprofits – the majority of the participants this summer seemed to already be connected to one or more nonprofits (likely because of the incentive of grants at the end of the course). Many said the course provided useful background on the sector and how to look at their favorite nonprofit(s) through a new lens. A nonprofit CEO could use the content to help staff see the nonprofit sector through the eyes of donors.

2. Is it too much of not enough?

The instructor, Rebecca Riccio, does a good job of synthesizing dozens of ideas from the literature on strategic giving and on nonprofit assessment. And, she frequently counsels participants to be fair and realistic when looking at issues such as evaluation and nonprofit overhead.

That said, participants may end up with too much of not enough information. As an example, she spends less than four minutes total introducing three tools: theories of change, logic models, and performance measurement practices. Participants are encouraged to look for these tools as signs of an effective nonprofit, but aren’t shown examples or provided context to judge quality if they do see them. Even seasoned foundation staffers have trouble assessing these tools, and too few nonprofits have good ones.

This felt like the equivalent of telling average consumers to buy a car based on the engine components. Sure, we can memorize a couple basic facts and ask the auto dealer to pop open the hood so we look like we’re being smart buyers. But it doesn’t mean we really know what we’re looking at.

3. Do I better understand my personal motivations for giving?

Each week included content designed to help participants reach both course goals (learn to satisfy your personal motivations for giving and learn to invest in high-performing organizations). Unfortunately, I don’t think the course succeeds on the first goal.

Ms Riccio poses good questions at the beginning of the course, for example: “Does a nonprofit have meaning for me?”, “Is investing in it a meaningful way for me to make a difference?” and “Does a contribution fit into my financial plan for giving?” But, the course doesn’t provide concrete tools to explore these and other values-driven and personal finance questions posed.

Truly understanding your personal motivations for giving takes time. In my experience in working with donors and donor families, they’re far more likely to take time for self-reflection and soul-searching in two circumstances. The first is when they’ve encountered a big change (e.g. selling a business, a parent dies, or inheriting wealth). The second is when they have an ally (e.g. an advisor, pastor, or life coach) and/or peer group regularly holding them accountable for the activity and documenting the results. Simply giving a scan of the ideas or presenting information freely online won’t change donor behavior.

4. Will it stick?

Thousands of people have now viewed content designed to help them be more purposeful givers. A subset of them attempted to practice what they saw on a few nonprofits’ web sites, 990s, and the often-incomplete nonprofit profiles submitted by participants. The course will accept another round of students at some point (TBD at the time of this post).

I’m not convinced that the content will stick for the majority. Like many great resources on strategic giving, the course provides a useful roadmap but following the map takes too much work for the donations under $100 that comprise most of charitable giving. In addition, even for wealthy donors, the motivation to give to high-performing nonprofits is easily undermined by other motivations and emotions (see Money for Good and other research on donor behavior).

Returning to our car-buying analogy, we may know all the right technical features we should value, but our purchases end up being driven more by emotion – the status the car conveys, the feel of the drive, the hot new color or style, loyalty to a brand, etc.

What if it does stick?

But, what if I’m wrong? What if the Giving With Purpose content does stick for hundreds or thousands of donors over time? Then, the nonprofit sector could be in trouble. The course raises expectations for the information donors should be able to easily learn about nonprofits. Most small- and mid-sized nonprofits won’t meet those expectations. That’s the subject of my next post.

If you took Giving With Purpose, please feel free to weigh in with your experience and reactions by commenting on this post! 

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