Philanthropic Personalities and Trends, July 13

While we are completing the manuscript of The Philanthropic Mind, we still keep our eyes fixed on what’s happening in the world of philanthropy. We are particularly attuned to stories that explore the lives, attitudes, opinions and accomplishments of philanthropists. Trends in philanthropic giving are also on our radar.

For those who share an interest in the enterprise of philanthropy, we thought we would share the best of what we have read. We hope you enjoy these.

1. An interview with Alexander Soros, son of George and a next generation philanthropist. From Alliance Magazine

2. Charles Bronfman’s views on philanthropy and the “edifice complex.” From the Globe & Mail.

3. Inspiring proof that you don’t have to be rich and famous to be a “hero of philanthropy.” From the Tapei Times.

4. Here’s a great way to get the next generation of philanthropists involved. From Forbes

Two views on whether Silicon Valley’s new titans of technology are as charitable as they should be
5. The positive approach from Wall Street Journal
6. And the approach that challenges from Non Profit Quarterly

7. In our interviews, cultural differences in attitudes to philanthropy were very apparent. Here’s an encouraging piece on the rise of high net worth philanthropy in India. From NDTV.

8. And finally, here’s an interesting trend – boomers are less likely to leave their wealth to their kids but more likely to bequeath it to charities. From Non Profit Quarterly

Hope you enjoyed these. We’ll be posting more in the weeks to come.


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A Philosophy of Giving

“We exist temporarily through what we take, but we live forever through what we give.”

Douglas M. Lawson

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Five Definitions of Philanthropy and one Shocker

What is philanthropy?

Well, the Oxford dictionary will tell you that philanthropy is “the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.”

But how do philanthropists define philanthropy? Our interviews with many of Canada’s top philanthropists have revealed a number of interesting and thought provoking responses. Here is a small sample.

Some of the responses were what we expected to hear.

  • Philanthropy is an obligation of the rich. If you have a lot of money you have the obligation to give back.
  • Philanthropy is giving money AND giving time.

Others revealed a more intellectual response.

  • Philanthropy is a partnership between the individual, institutions and government.
  • Philanthropy is a system of giving – a way of life – as opposed to a series of small charitable acts.

Some were brutally honest.

  • Philanthropy is work. It involves investing the time to give consideration to options and proposals and then making appropriate decisions.

And then there was one response that really made us take a step back.

  • Philanthropy is a status symbol. It’s another step into the higher profile demographic. It means you’ve hit success.

We had to consider whether this philanthropist was a flaming ego-maniac or simply a realist? At first it seemed crass, particularly juxtaposed with the humility of so many of those that we have interviewed. But it’s hard to deny that having your name on a building reflects a measure of wealth – which in our society is certainly equated with status.

There are other indications that this philanthropist may in fact be right.

The reality is that this century has seen giving become a more admirable value. In the past five years the Trendwatching organization has identified at least two consumer trends that are adding value to giving. In looking at spheres of status, they identified the Giving Sphere and said, “whether it’s giving away your riches, your time … giving is the new taking.” And in their report on what they call Generation G, they say “for many, sharing a passion and receiving recognition have replaced ‘taking’ as the new status symbol.”

The Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge and the rise of corporate philanthropy are indications of the same trends.

This small sample of responses certainly demonstrates that there is much to be learned from listening to what Canada’s philanthropists have to say. We look forward to telling you more.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you have to say. How do you define philanthropy?

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John F. Kennedy on Philanthropy

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men and women who can dream of things that never were.” 

“There are costs and risks to a program of action, but they are far less than the long­range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”

 “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”


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Size doesn’t always matter

Does the size of a philanthropic gift determine its meaningfulness to the donor?
In one of our recent interviews with Canada’s top philanthropists, a donor told us that his first meaningful gift and the one that may have given him the most pleasure was $200 to the university of which he was an alumnus. Not surprising. But what he told us about the rest of his giving history to the institution deserves attention. His most recent gift is quite significant – in the mid seven figures. However, he can recall little detail and nothing notable about all the gifts between the $200 gift thirty years ago and the multi-million dollar gift most recently.

Listen to his words in describing that first gift. “A couple of hundred bucks felt significant at the time. I was only making about $30,000 a year. It was my alma matter and I had a good time there and obviously universities need money. It wasn’t necessarily meaningful financially but it was meaningful spiritually.”

This is what he had to say about the intervening gifts. “Had I committed to other [gifts] before that of lesser amounts? Probably, but I don’t even remember any more. I might have agreed to a gift of $50,000, which at the time seemed significant but today I don’t even remember making the gift. I guess there had to be other gifts that preceded it [the multi-million dollar gift] because you just don’t one day donate that much money.”

What’s going on here? This is an intelligent and very successful businessman. Is it possible that he has forgotten the many intervening gifts? I don’t believe so but it appears he has forgotten their significance. And before we’re too critical, let’s face the fact that he did end up being an extremely generous supporter of the institution. So, all was far from lost.

So what was lost by the forgotten significance? Who knows for sure. Perhaps he would have given more. Perhaps he would have been a stronger advocate for the institution, helping to solicit other gifts. Perhaps if he would have spoken as “spiritually” about all his gifts, more people would have been motivated to give.

The message to today’s fundraisers is to try and make every gift as meaningful as that first $200. This donor had a strong sense of affinity, felt deep responsibility, perceived the need and was sure his gift was going to accomplish something. And he felt great – spiritual – for making it. What if every donor could feel that way about every gift.

There’s also an important lesson to those just embarking on a philanthropic career. The number of zeroes in the gift amount won’t always make you feel better. There are other, more significant considerations. Take the lesson learned from this philanthropist and remember that when it comes to meaningful philanthropy – size doesn’t always matter.

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Why philanthropy isn’t altruistic

In one of our interviews, a prominent Canadian philanthropist shared that she believed there is no such thing as altruism in philanthropy.  We were shocked. Together with her husband she has donated tens of millions of dollars, and together they have one of the largest foundations in Canada. How could she possibly say there was no altruism in philanthropy?  Upon deeper reflection, it appears she may be right.

Wikipedia defines altruism as “the renunciation of the self, and an exclusive concern for the welfare of others.”  It is all about the other person. Philanthropy, on the other hand, literally means (according to Wikipedia) “the love of humanity.” In modern practical terms, it is “private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life”. There is a significantly different tone in these two definitions. One is selfless, possibly even detrimental to oneself. The other is focused on one’s “love”, “quality of life” and other aspects not included in these definitions such as esteem, legacy, camaraderie and self satisfaction.

It’s also important to clarify that our interviews are with those making major gifts and therefore our frame of reference for this discussion involves support for an organization that would generally warrant the naming or establishment of  something meaningful in perpetuity.

A fundraising approach focused purely on altruism doesn’t work most of the time. The average philanthropist is worldly, they know about the ills, struggles, and injustices of humanity around the world. They know that people are starving, some don’t have access to basic medicine, abuse is rampant, illiteracy is still excruciatingly high, and the cure for Alzheimer’s has yet to be discovered. They are not suddenly exposed to these realities by the fundraiser that walks into their office. Yet, in most instances, and despite this knowledge, they have not chosen to voluntarily part with their money – at least not until they were asked, inspired, cajoled, and/or pressured to do so.

Often, the philanthropist doesn’t make the decision to give until there is a building to put her name on or another naming opportunity to establish recognition in perpetuity. Perhaps the decision is based on the admiration of others or a deep sense of self satisfaction. This is because philanthropy is not altruistic. Rather, it is the confluence of altruism with egoism. Philanthropy is where selflessness and self-centeredness meet.

One could argue that even those with purely altruistic motives are effectively providing some self-validation for themselves, to assure that they “sleep better at night”. In fact, one of the few questions from our interviews that resulted in consistent responses was, “what about your philanthropy keeps you up at night?” While we would have expected that there may be philanthropy-related issues that would keep them awake at night, that proved not to be the case.  Even some of the most seasoned philanthropists, for whom philanthropy was now their primary pre-occupation, said that their philanthropy was having the opposite effect. They felt better about themselves, their lives, and consequently slept just fine.

The reality of philanthropy is that it is, at least in part, about creating a good feeling, leaving a legacy, feeling part of a community, fulfilling personal aspirations, and the confidence-boosting knowledge that through our actions we can somehow change the world. The vehicle for these goals is a cause that will somehow benefit humanity.

Ultimately, whether philanthropy is altruistic or not is relatively academic. However, there is a clear message for professionals in the fundraising arena. Simply appealing to the philanthropist’s altruism is oversimplifying the motivations for giving, and will ultimately limit any solicitor’s success.

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How much should you know about a donor?

On a face to face gift solicitation how much do you really need to know about the prospective donor? And more interestingly, how much should you tell the donor that you know?

Our research based on personal interviews with Canada’s top philanthropists has produced responses to these questions that are as fascinating as they are varied.

The interview question we used was, “How much do you expect someone to know about you when approaching you for your involvement?” Some philanthropists said that there is simply no excuse for not knowing their background, giving interests and history as well as their current commitments and involvement. These individuals would be insulted if the solicitor didn’t display this level of knowledge. Others have said that there is no need for such research. Some even indicated that the less the fundraiser knows about them the better, because the whole idea of prospect research made them somewhat uncomfortable.

It seems clear that thorough prospect research is a key to a successful solicitation. Even those philanthropists who claim they don’t care how much fundraisers know about them, still told us they want the meeting to have a personal touch. Ultimately, they want the opportunity being presented to take into consideration previous giving patterns, personal charitable affinities, relationships and personal preferences.

The truth is that regardless of whether you talk about your research, the success of the solicitation will lie in the degree to which the gift opportunity resonates with the donor. A prospective giver will only be impressed with your research if the proposal accurately reflects his or her interests. Those donors who would prefer that you know (or indicate that you know) less about them, will still respond positively to a well crafted opportunity. So, when it comes to prospect research, maybe you should let the proposal do the talking.

And here’s a final point to consider. Don’t let your research get in the way of learning more about the donor. Get to know them and let them know you, because it’s not about closing the deal. It’s about opening the relationship.

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