Let’s Talk Philanthropy

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 24th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Recently, I got a question from a young executive director of an organization clearly in the start-up phase of its lifecycle.  The board, too, is young.  And, as so many young people are,  they are very earnest and concerned with doing the right thing in the right way.  But the subject of the question she asked is not a young person’s or young organization’s question;  it is a question that I get so regularly in some form, I am almost tired of answering it.  The reason I’m not yet too tired of answering it is because people are asking the wrong question.

The question that I was asked was:  “Is there a percentage [of the budget] that board giving should be expected to cover?”  Sometimes the question gets asked more generically:  “How much should a board give?”  Or any other myriad of configurations.  Any and all of these questions are asked as a way to motivate the board to give, based on the thinking that if a goal is set—x% of the budget or $Y—the money will flow in.  Yet, we all know that isn’t the case.  So, the real question that people should be asking?  How do you engage a board sufficiently so that giving becomes second nature to board member, as opposed to a tug of war?

Sadly, for all you out there feeling desperate and wanting this to have happened yesterday, engagement is a process.  It starts with a conversation; not a five or 15 minute conversation, but a deep and thorough one (thorough in the sense that all board members must contribute; no passes on this one) on the importance and significance of board members giving money to the organization.  And it is both-and, as board giving is not just utilitarian in that it provides money to cover the cost of something; it is hugely symbolic in its statement of support, belief, faith.  And never underestimate symbolic value!  This conversation involves answering questions like the following:

  • What does the mission of the organization mean to each board member? the core values?
  • How does each board member value and live the mission? the core values?
  • What does philanthropy mean to each board member? (Most people have a lopsided understanding of philanthropy, thinking of it only in terms of giving money when, in fact, it is so much more.  Bringing “fuller” definitions of philanthropy to this discussion would prove helpful, including a look at its etymological root.)
  • Did philanthropy factor into their family of origin?
  • Does philanthropy factor into their present life (and family if they have one)?  In other words, are they “living philanthropy” today and if so, how?
  • What role does philanthropy play for the success of the organization’s mission?

If well facilitated, a conversation such as this will get the mental juices flowing and for many on your board, thinking in a different way. The second conversation that must happen, not long after the first, is the one on the real value of the board.  (In fact, these conversations could be the context of a board retreat or visioning session.)  A board’s value lies in more than just how much money it gives, and it is a mistake to isolate—and highlight–that responsibility to the exclusion of the rest.  This conversation involves answering questions like the following:

  • What does the board really and actually (forget the theory and the “supposed to” and look at what is really getting done; staff input on this topic, though it may be tough to hear, is invaluable) do for the mission? the organization?
  • How is what it does do contributing (or not) to the success and well-being of the organization’s ability to deliver on mission promises?
  • What role does board giving currently play in the success of the organization’s mission?  What role should it play?
  • What beyond what is currently being done—both that which is internally visible and that which is externally visible—should the board—collectively—and individual board members be doing?  (This is where the theory gets brought in:  a board is supposed to do this much; you are only doing that much.)
  • How will you measure the success of the collective board’s and individual board members’ activity?

With the first conversation, it is necessary to be open and welcoming of all responses and to exclude anything that even remotely smacks of judgment; the opposite is true of the second conversation.  With the latter, there must be a harsh and very critical mirror held up to the board and it must be forced to take a good hard look at itself and how well – or not – it is engaged in supporting the mission and the organization.  It is all well and good to puff up your chest and blare, “Oh, our board gives this much money,” but if that is all that your board members are doing, they aren’t an engaged board.  Board giving can happen as a statement of obligation or a statement of belief.  Hound a person enough, telling him/her it is his/her duty, responsibility, requirement, etc. and you will most likely get something in the end.

Having people come to the realization on their own that they want to support a mission because they truly believe in the importance of the mission and that it their personal  responsibility to help humanity and you will get so much more.  But if this seems like too much work and you just want that board giving, have the board identify something for which it will be responsible:  a person’s salary, a capital project, a program or aspect of a program.  That “thing” is then at the mercy of the board’s giving:  insufficient giving and it doesn’t happen or happens as a shadow of what is needed;  sufficient giving and it “lives” for one year and you start all over again.

Take your pick.

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