This is the time of year for lists – top 10 movies of the year, top 10 retweets, top 10 pictures of dogs dressed as reindeer. That’s one way of collecting data.
Every semester, I start off one of my graduate classes by asking the students to explore the various sources of data on nonprofits. I give them starting sources, such as the National Center for Charitable Statistics, Giving USA and the Foundation Center, making it clear that they are by no means limited to these resources. I intentionally do not suggest any of the three charity watchdogs.
Yet despite that, they find Charity Navigator and their “Top Ten” lists, like bees to honey. Particular favorites are those lists that highlight salaries: best charities with low paid executive directors, worst charities with high paid executive directors, etc. And it is the same whether these are MBA or Masters in Nonprofit Leadership students.
What do lists really tell us? Not a whole heck of lot since they lack context. They are fodder for superficial conversations that quickly insight emotional responses and engender heated responses from people who generally know little of what they are talking. As such, they lead us down unimportant roads leaving the important questions and issues behind.
Case in point: earlier this week, I received the email press release from Wealth-X announcing “The Largest Philanthropic Donations of 2014.” (I guess they figured that the largest gifts have already been given, despite the fact that there are three weeks left in December). As so frequently happens when I receive these email press releases (which I do daily), my hand went to the delete button upon reading the subject line. But for some reason, I stopped and opened the email. What did I learn? Of the 10 largest gifts, which totaled approximately $3.5 billion, three of those gifts went to Harvard University and five others went to other institutions of higher education (the Universities of Wisconsin, Notre Dame and California – Santa Barbara, Cornell Medical College, and Oregon Health & Science University); the remaining two gifts went to foundations. For the individuals who made these gifts, their donations represented anywhere from 3% to 21% of their net worth.
To be truthful, the list saddened me. I don’t begrudge any of those institutions their gifts. (Harvard’s two gifts from the Chan brothers, totaling $350, did spur some conversation earlier in the year: with an existing $36.4 billion endowment, the question went, does Harvard really need another $350 million? If Harvard were a country, it would just about the median point in the rankings of world economies.) It is wonderful that these 10 individuals are so charitable. And I’m impressed as all get out that John “Jay” Jordan gave 21% of his net worth to alma mater; that’s true love, thanks and appreciation. Don’t we wish we all had donors like that?
Which brings me to why this list really made me sad. It glamorizes the contributions of those who can well afford to give and, thus, by the absence of the list of the “10 Smallest Philanthropic Donations by Those Who Struggled/Sacrificed the Most to Give” degrades the small and “smaller” gifts that make up the other 98% of charitable giving. One of the many rules of fundraising that I learned early on is the maxim to “value every gift regardless of its size.” Sadly, I think too few live by that rule. Increasingly, folks are so focused on the “big” gifts that they allow the routine to suffice for the “common” gifts.
As you close out the giving year of 2014, don’t be blinded or led astray by the bling (and the lust for bling) and shortchange your bread and butter. Be good to those who truly sacrifice and stretch to help you continue the good work that you do.