Are We Owed Philanthropy?

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an email with the word “Disgusting” on the subject line.  The text of the message was all about the fact that 379 of the people on last year’s Forbes 400 did not report making any big gifts this year. I don’t know.  Maybe they were all paying off big pledges.  Or had other big expenses.  Or maybe we in the nonprofit sector acted on the premise that the wealthy “owe” us and, therefore, we don’t have to do anything to get what should be coming to us.

Alas, what came to us was….nothing.

I could become the type of 99 per center who rants about how the rich live off the backs of, and how they should support nonprofits, but that doesn’t quite ring true for me.  Sometimes, when I read about super large gifts and the restrictions/constraints the donors put on their gifts, I wonder if what is lost in all this is the meaning of a gift, which I think of as something freely given without expectation of anything in return.

OK, I’m naïve.  And I do advise my clients that they should be spending 80% of their time with the 20% of their donors who give 80% of their charitable revenue.  But I also don’t expect those donors to give only because they can. Besides, as reported in the Chronicle  million dollar donations are down this year AND they are not all that likely to give to a major campaign. So what’s a nonprofit to do?

Giving, of course, is an opportunity and a benefit.  There are all sorts of studies that show that making a charitable gift gives back in positive feelings many times over.  And we know that the most likely donor is someone who is already a donor.  Our job, therefore, is to identify the most likely donor and turn that person into a donor for our cause or organization.

Contrary to what we’d like that to mean, what it does mean is that we have to find ways to bring existing and potential supporters closer.  Yes, we must know what our organization needs to fulfill its mission, but more importantly, we have to find out what our donors’ needs are.  And you don’t find that out by sending off a direct mail appeal, or reaching out by telling only your side of the story.  You could find out some things about your prospects and donors by inviting them to a special event—but only if you use that event to start or continue a conversation.

We all know this—but somehow the hard work of taking care of our prospects and donors is always the first thing that falls off when your plate gets full of things you have to do.  And yet, common sense tells us that this is by far the most important thing for anyone involved in raising funds.

So no.  I don’t believe that donors owe us anything.  But if we want to keep our donors and get new ones we owe them and not just a “thank you” for the gifts they have given.  We owe them a sense of why their support matters.  Which means we must find many ways to show this and part of that is finding out which of those ways will matter to them.

Janet Levine works with nonprofit and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity, strengthen their boards and build a support base that is strong and sustainable.  Learn more at