What motivates someone who makes a major philanthropic commitment, a transformative commitment? Maybe just as important, what keeps them from taking action? What’s really going on?
It’s often said that people invest in philanthropy so they can make a difference. When we go beyond the cliche, dig deeper into what’s going on in the world, what do we find that might be stopping people from believing that they can make a difference?
What might be stopping people from making a transformative investment in your cause?
My interviews with philanthropic leaders have revealed some surprising insights into these crucial questions.
Now, first I have to say that we’re not presuming that we know what’s going on for any one person … or for everyone. We have to ask them the right questions, stay curious to find that out.
Still, when you’re in these kinds of relationships for so long, you start to notice things.
Certainly I’ve seen these folks hunger to make a difference, a real difference. This isn’t just a cliche. I want to make sure that we’re not just giving lip service to this. It goes deep. Really deep.
Especially when we’re talking about major gifts and legacy gifts, people are coming to face their own self-efficacy, their capacity to be an actor in the world who has some agency, some personal power. (Even those with wealth and power wonder about this. Hard to believe, perhaps?) And that is a much deeper place to go when we think about this.
Even deeper? The denial of death.
The greatest anxiety that any human being faces, perhaps even accentuated for those who have material wealth: The denial of death. It’s the notion that we will try, as well as we can, to not believe that our lives will end. There’s a lot more that can be said about that, and I would love to get into it more with you, but right now I just want to convey the sense of gravity that can run underneath these conversations about major philanthropic investments.
It’s easy to underestimate how important and serious these conversations are. It’s tempting to just move on the surface right into the “ask” or talk about a tax strategy that would make a lot of sense in their circumstance.
Is this why donors are so “demanding”?
The thing is, I believe this desire to make a difference — strengthened by these life-and-death undercurrents — is underneath the growing trend of donors wanting to climb into the driver’s seat, being more proactive than reactive.
They want to direct their money more than ever.
They’re demanding more specific outcomes from philanthropic investments because they want to make sure they’ve made a real and lasting difference.
It’s that important to them.
Instead of resenting these demands (as too many professionals seem to do) what if we understood them, really understood them?
What if we even treasured the honorable impulse from which they spring?
A few days ago, one of the good folks who’s studied with me told me what one of the people he’s been working with had to say: “If you’re asking me if I want to give you $50 million, well the answer is initially ‘Hell no!’ But if I feel and think my $50 million gift can actually make a difference in the lives of those who suffer from cancer, well then I’m all in.”
It’s just crucial to understand this desire, this hunger, to make a difference, from the donor’s point of view as the deep and abiding hunger that it really is.
Of course, there are other reasons people step forward — it’s a nice thing to do, so-and-so asked me, I want to set an example for my children or my community. Yes.
And I don’t mean to minimize any of those. They’re operating and we want to heighten our awareness of those, too.
What I’m pointing to, though, is the deeper significance a major philanthropic investment has in that person’s life, the significance of the opportunity that you — and maybe only you — can offer them. Pretty interesting to think about your role in that context.
The elephant in the room
There’s a question about making a difference that’s almost never asked out loud. But it hangs like a dark cloud over many people and keeps them from investing themselves as fully as they might really want to. Understanding this question suggests a different capacity for you, a different role perhaps, as someone who does a whole lot more for the world than just “raise money.”
It’s this: Can a real difference be made? At all?
It’s a serious question. Many of us are wondering these days — and reasonably so — whether we can create the future we want. Or maybe we’re at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Open up a newspaper and you’ll see lots of reasons to lose any sense of promise. There are dashed hopes, cynicism, even despair.
So this is a serious question: Can anyone, particularly one individual or family, really truly make a difference? It’s rarely asked so bluntly, but if this hidden question is swept under the rug, it can kill the enthusiasm and commitment that underly philanthropy.
Now, I want to recognize that it may be healthy self-protection to tone down our dreams, to be reserved and skeptical.
People have good reason to be reluctant to throw themselves into a cause or to be seen as tilting at windmills. It is a prevention of embarrassment, not wanting to be seen as foolish. So I’m just saying we want to be aware of this. We may or may not address it directly, but just be aware of that reality a person may be living in.
How might this change your work?
So your role, our role, becomes more of a merchant of promise and possibility and confidence in the future– in general, though, well beyond just your organization or cause.
We’ll talk more about how you can do that, how you keep people focused on possibilities and their ability to make a difference. We want to equip you to give people answers for the unasked questions that squash the potential of what they could do to change the world.
There are ways to open this conversation. For now, if you simply expand your concept of what it is that you’re doing, that’s great.
Expand your awareness of what’s going on beneath the surface when you meet with someone. Isn’t that as honoring as you can be with another human being?
I mean, even without answering these kinds of questions, you’re coming from that place of understanding — and not trying to hide it or to walk away from it when there’s a slight opening of a door with a person.
Well, what’s happening when you’re doing this is you’re developing trust. The person feels understood. And that’s what you’re really working toward, isn’t it?
Your role is too often misunderstood
The reason that I’m getting so deeply into this — and I do hope you can sense the depth of my commitment to you — is because yours is a role that’s often misunderstood. (It could even be misunderstood by you.) It’s not to “sell the organization’s needs” or make the budget.
It’s really a role of opening up possibility for another human being.
Forget for a moment what good this will do, what difference it will make in the world. When you’re sitting with another person or with a family, you’re opening the door to possibilities that will make sure their lives have counted, have mattered for something. Something big and significant, where they were concerned with others, concerned with the future.
I can hardly think of any more noble or important a calling. You have a chance to go to a place where people really live and breathe about what most matters to them — this at a time when superficial connection is all too common and there’s so much “busy-ness” and competition for our attention.
You have not only the right, but in some sense the responsibility, to meet with someone in such a human way. And still having a desire to see something happen as a result, not merely to hold their hand. I think that’s really amazing.
In fact, you have the opportunity to show the person meaning and hope. And as a byproduct of that, yes there will be money. Money that really does something.
Thank you for staying with me. (As a friend of mine says, I’m a lot clearer on that now.) Let’s see what happens between now and the next time we’re together like this.