The Giving Pledge, announced recently by some of the wealthiest families in America, where these individuals and families commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice, reminded me of a story I share in my Donor Development training session on “Why Do Major Donors Give”.
Some years ago when approaching a donor, I asked him to walk me through what he would want to see on the sign at the building he had funded for over 90% of its cost with a robust several million dollars of his own money. He gave me (and I will never, ever forget) a stern look. He turned red and his body language said everything but understanding. He was annoyed, angry and I thought I was about to be kicked out of his office some 20 flights straight down! Everything in my own body language (as in your reading eyes and forehead!) was saying: “What did I do wrong?” The donor did not stay shy for too long and stepped in to explain. Michael, he said… you don’t understand…I had a dream, and in the dream God told me to build this building for the community. I am simply following what God told me to do in my dream. I see no place, added the donor, for a sign with my name on the walls of this holy building! This is the part where both your and my jaws fall to the floor! I did not in my lifetime or years of work with donors, expect such a surprising answer.
Why am I telling you this introductory story in this first of several installments on The GIVE… trying to help us better understand why people give? I am sharing this story because I wanted to surprise you – at least a bit. I wanted to make the point that to my mind, there is always something surprising in the reasons why people give. I have been working with donors for quite some time, you could say almost 20 years of give and take. Most of it… with BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE! What makes this work especially beautiful are the reasons these individuals engage in philanthropy. These reasons, or the GIVE as I call it, are as wild and as amazing as movies of Harrison Ford or James Cameron – or use your own example. Unfortunately, I am not going to be able to give you more than handful or two of examples of these beautiful people and their reasons… the full-scale examples really belong to training sessions where we can talk in-depth about Giving.
Allow me to start in no particular order with the first of the GIVE:
We GIVE because there is a Giving Tradition. This giving tradition is often related to our family. Our parents gave, or as the first donor I met on the job as director of donor development for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said to me in August 1999: “My father used to give and I follow in his footsteps”. She shared with me and with the then CEO/President of the Federation the riches in the footsteps she was following. What was special in this meeting with this specific donor was to watch how enthralled she was when she spoke of the footsteps she said she “only” followed. This tradition was indeed inspiring. Many of us feel we have a giving tradition we follow and also try to pass on to our successors. But the Giving Tradition as the “why” people give can also be the Giving Tradition at work. Many companies in Pittsburgh have this “tradition” and I am sure this same tradition exists around the country. The Giving Tradition has also become part of the culture of many of the leading companies around the world. Not only that they contribute, but that they engage themselves in the giving in order to participate in making the world a better place. The Giving Tradition is a contemporary idea as much as it is a part of something we follow from others of our own heritage.
Look at the Giving Tradition as a serious business, way beyond what most of us realize. It starts with what we see and share at home but goes way beyond that. For some of us it is a transitional phase where we still say “I do it because my ______ did it” but when that giving becomes so strongly embedded in us, then that ‘because’ may or may not continue to be strong in our reasoning and other rationales may come to shape and lead the way we articulate our GIVE.
It is time to move on… so onward the second in this list of why people give. Number 2 in our list of GIVE, in short, is Pay Back or if you want… as in the original way I typically say it in my training: Repaying to the Community. This is based on something which was said to me by yet another donor who is young and who explained to me in all seriousness that he feels and strongly believes that it is because of the community that his family was able to succeed. He believes in it, and therefore – so do I! He wants to make a difference in a way that feels like “paying back” and his way of paying back is charitable giving. By the way, he also said that he believes that moneymaking as well as a charitable giving arm needs to be very similar to one and the other in almost every way. A rather unique and phenomenally gifted donor I have had the pleasure of working with for over 5 years. In fact – one of the most gifted I have worked with. He shaped one of the most successful charitable international projects I have been involved with, which is presently operating, and yet he envisioned it within minutes, while it took us few years to put together. This type of donor, many of us may or may not know, not only has the ability to sign checks – many of them, regardless of age and background, have a mind which I find often is the “other” explanation as to how these wealthy people made so much money. Because they are brilliant, and that brilliancy can also do wonders in the arena of charitable giving, above and beyond the giving itself.
But, getting back to Pay Back (to the community), I have heard this expression many times, by young in soul and by young in age, by donors who shared with me the stories of how their parents were helped by others in Pittsburgh. We make a mistake and judge the package by just the words “pay back”. Major mistake! Let’s go further and deeper into this one, so that I contribute something to your thinking process and not just provide you with “a GIVE list”. The idea here is to enable an interaction between a feeling in oneself and “something”… Let me help you a bit….
Think of any relationship you have been blessed with… family, at work, friendships… any. A relationship where one day you develop a feeling and that strong feeling wakes you up and tells you: “Oh God, I have been so lucky – so blessed”, when that strong feeling in you is clearly identifiable in its direction, in other words….it is a person generating this feeling in you (versus just an emotion without a specific meaning… retailers are sometimes the other lucky person in this case!). But when that strong feeling is more general where you just feel lucky and blessed, if it’s not so specific we often look around and say: “Thank You!” and we do something with this “Thank You!” so that it does not only stay within ourselves but becomes something tangible. And although I simplified it, in a nutshell this is GIVE #2. And if you are an organization (hint hint…) you want to be around when this feeling comes about in a major donor! (Hint #2: read my Blog “To Be and How to Be – That is the Question” to be published in early 2011).
It’s time to move onward again… I find it hard to move on; I don’t know how you feel, but each of the GIVES feels so real that moving on feels so hard. One reason is that each of the GIVES is a real person… real donors, real people, like you, like me, real giving. Number 3 used to be tough for me. I first got acquainted with it (surprisingly?!) in Moscow, Russia in my office at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. One of my coordinators of work with the local community came up with the idea in 1995 to put together a cultural club for Russian Jewish businessmen. Have social lunches (there in Moscow in 1995!) and talk them into contributing to the local community. The idea that local Russian businessmen who knew almost nothing about charity would contribute through Socializing sounded so strange to me, and to be honest I did not think it would work. Credit goes to Lena who initiated this concept over 15 years ago – her idea still operates and is successful in Moscow and also is extremely successful all over the world. Donors all over the world respond to socializing. You can look at this GIVE rationale from various angles. Here is something I would like to again contribute to your thinking. Think about teamwork. Hmmm – we love doing things together – it does something to us. We love being together and we love being with the people that we love being with. The ego within us makes us do (among other things) some great deeds. The importance of socializing is not necessarily overstated, especially if it causes us to carry out some marvelous things as a result…
Donors I have met and worked with, and one specifically who I am still very fond of, a fascinating businessman with a banking empire both at his fingertips and in his brain (and who also knew by heart poems of great American, English, and Irish poets!) whose first sizable gift was $250,000 was due to his stated desire to be “part of a group”.
Having the privilege to watch major donors closely has enabled me to understand the piece of the puzzle called Socializing as a GIVE. I now understand that people who give because of this socializing seek a sense of belonging, of value, through the social element, which is something we all live and breathe day in and day out. Think of Facebook and the role it plays in our life and you will understand socializing as a GIVE in a better way. We all really want and need the socializing as part of “being”, even in philanthropy.
Lastly, which is where I am going to end this blog with 15 more GIVES to go (WOW!!!), I doubt if any of us give because of one GIVE only. I think we have a Hungarian-Cube type of giving realization within us and we keep working with it as it evolves. It is complex and can be displayed in many, many ways. I do believe we keep picking up the GIVES all the time and that the factors change constantly. We will talk about this in future blogs but meanwhile, think about the first 3 GIVES. See how they feel for you and keep looking for the next round of GIVES in the next Donor Development Blog.