Learning to give wisely

Dan Siegel and Jenny Yancey

At the close of a workday in midtown Manhattan, a group of graduates of The Philanthropy Workshop, a Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored programme for budding philanthropists, recently gathered to reflect on their own learning experience and the growing field of ‘donor education’. ‘You think you know what to do as a donor,’ mused one humbled participant. ‘But there are no checks and balances for giving money away. Where do you reach out for learning? Usually if you start a career and don’t get trained, you get eaten up. But not in this field. You can get away with shoddy giving.’

Such comment echoes the age-old wisdom of Aristotle, who claimed that ‘to give away money … is an easy matter and in any man’s power, but to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter. Hence, it is that such excellence is rare, praiseworthy and noble.’

To help individuals give wisely, a growth industry of donor education programmes and services are mushrooming across the US philanthropic landscape. This includes a wide range of formal learning opportunities – such as seminars, workshops, retreats, and giving circles – designed to cultivate, educate and connect potential or active donors.

Why the interest?

What is driving this interest in donor education? One factor is the so-called generational transfer of wealth in the US that is taking place despite the prolonged economic downturn. Even by conservative estimates, an extra $100 billion in increased charitable giving is expected each year this decade. Alongside new resources is the growing interest among donors in being more informed and engaged in their giving. There are also a small but important circle of foundations supporting the growth of new donors through philanthropy promotion and education. These funders recognize that over 80 per cent of private giving in the US is from individuals, who can help sustain the non-profit sector in the midst of declining foundation assets.

Parallel to the rush to educate individual donors, foundations themselves are developing educational resources for programme officers and foundation executives. This year the Ford Foundation launched GrantCraft, a multi-media programme that provides skill-building tools, publications and videos for foundation professionals (much of which can be downloaded at http://www.grantcraft.org). Meanwhile, the first Summer Academy on Philanthropy for foundation staff was organized this year by the International Network on Strategic Philanthropy in London. While operating in different contexts, both individual donors and foundation officers can benefit from exposure to an accumulated body of knowledge, experience and strategies that make for more effective philanthropy.

A nascent field

Over the past year, we have researched these diverse donor education efforts worldwide – organizing focus groups with donors, interviewing over 250 people, convening philanthropic and donor education programme leaders, and conducting a survey of current providers of donor education programmes. We will be undertaking a global survey of existing and nascent donor education programmes in early 2003.

Like much of organized philanthropy, the emerging area of donor education is in its infancy. It is a field flooded by more questions than answers about how best to engage and inform donors. There is a lack of standards and accreditation, common language and frameworks. That said, it is worth briefly reflecting on some key issues facing the field.

Do donors want to learn?

Well, no and yes. On the one hand, most charitable givers are simply generous cheque writers who have not thought about or had the opportunity to develop a giving plan or strategy. Many are highly successful business people who assume they have the skills to give their own money away. As Peter Karoff of The Philanthropic Initiative (www.tpi.org) in Boston points out, ‘philanthropy is largely a do-it-yourself business’.

Nevertheless, as we have repeatedly heard. many donors initially go it alone then get stuck or frustrated after recognizing that giving money effectively is no simple task. ‘There’s a tendency for people not to want to admit that they need help with their philanthropy,’ says Elizabeth Bremner, Executive Director of the Foundation Incubator in Silicon Valley, which advises and supports new donors starting up foundations. If donors get past this hurdle, they may then seek advice or even formal learning opportunities.

How do donors want to learn?

Donor education programmes have to accommodate a variety of preferred learning styles and formats, extending from one-on-one consulting, peer group settings and hands-on engagement to online learning. In adult education, people often learn best through experiential and practical settings where they can apply their learning. For philanthropy education, this may involve donors taking part in interactive site visits, attending study tours, volunteering with a non-profit, or participating in a grant cycle process.

In our research, we have found that donors tend to be drawn to safe learning environments that facilitate engagement and networking with other donors and, for some, a sense of being part of a community. This accounts for the rapid spread of giving circles – especially among women and the high-tech world. These are small groups and networks of individuals pool their resources, learn about philanthropy together, and make small grants in their community. The Social Venture Partners (www.svp.org), birthed out of the high-tech industry in Seattle five years ago, now has affiliates of learning and giving circles in over 20 cities in the US and Canada. ‘Donor circles are an amazing way for donors to learn cooperatively,’ says Siobhan O’Riordan of Giving New England (www.givingnewengland.org), a regional programme to promote philanthropy. ‘They really engage and encourage donors.’

Means or ends?

The substance of donor education varies across a wide spectrum and is highly dependent upon what type of organization is offering the ‘education’ – it might be a community foundation, philanthropic support organization or financial services firm.

The content spectrum can be grouped in three main categories:

  • the ‘Why Give’ and personal issues involving the motivations for giving and the identity/family issues and dynamics related to the impact of wealth in one’s life;
  • the ‘How To’ questions around choosing appropriate giving vehicles and strategies;
  • the larger ‘Social Impact’ context to do with a better understanding of the needs of non-profits and the community, and how to effect change in the world.

Unfortunately, donor education programmes and service providers often gravitate to mere technique questions around how to give and through what mechanisms. Which raises the question: is the donor education field perfecting the means and shortchanging the ends of philanthropy? At its heart, philanthropy is about passion and values, both personal and social. But too many organizations that service donors, whether philanthropic or for-profit, lack the inclination or skills to engage donors in the very personal learning journey to work out their own values. More importantly, they may be too far removed from the community and the non-profit sector to effectively help donors transform society.

Who is being reached?

Despite the steady growth of donor education programmes, the field is still new and only reaches a sliver of the donor base who may be interested in and benefit from deeper learning and engagement . Veteran donor educator and activist Tracy Gary, author of Inspired Philanthropy,[1] says the field ‘needs to look at how we work in a massive way to move Americans as donors’. Two key areas of focus have been underscored:

Most education programmes invite already known and engaged donors to their own venues. Little is being done to go ‘on the road’ and offer such presentations where donors actually reside, meet and find affinity, such as churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith centres, civic clubs, elder communities, school settings, libraries and professional associations.

The existing philanthropic infrastructure has limited reach into the high-net-worth community, let alone the top 5 per cent of wealthy Americans. The golden door for reaching donors is through those sitting at the gates of people with wealth – the attorneys, estate and financial planners, investment professionals, and others in the wealth management field who donors trust and first turn to for advice.

Donor education and international giving

Giving is becoming a globalized phenomenon. Especially in the wake of September 11 and the spreading crisis in the Middle East, there is increased interest among individuals in making an impact beyond US borders. With greater access to information about NGOs, the rise of international funding networks and intermediaries, and improving local philanthropic infrastructure in other countries, more families and individuals can become global givers – a term no longer reserved for George Soros, Bill Gates, Ted Turner and the large internationalist US foundations. The education for everyday individuals can be very elementary, teaching them that yes, it is legal and possible to fund abroad, either through a US-based intermediary or directly to NGOs abroad. Moreover, donors in other countries are increasingly taking part in US-based learning programmes to improve their own social investing.

Two of the more intensive education programmes that serve donors of higher net worth – the Rockefeller Foundation’s Philanthropy Workshop and the Synergos Institute’s Global Philanthopists Circle – involve international site visits and global grantmaking.

Founded in 1995, The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW) is a year-long donor training and leadership development programme. Philanthropists participate in four week-long modules, which involve seminars and issue briefings, extensive site visits, skill-building sessions, retreats, and networking with over 100 TPW alumni. International site visits have included Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Kenya, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Participants in these trips describe their interactions with NGO leaders, government officials and aid agencies as being perhaps the most transformational part of these donor programmes. They often result in either pooled or individual grants to the NGOs they visited, and longer-term commitments to particular countries, issues or NGOs by donors. Pooled funding collaboratives established by TPW alumni include the Mexico Fund (which supports fair trade, environmentally sustainable enterprises and women’s business development) and the Islam and Civil Society Grants Initiative.

Almost a third of TPW participants are now non-US citizens. Moreover, TPW has expanded in the US and internationally through TPW West, based at the Hewlett Foundation in California, Philanthropic Leadership in the Americas (for Latin Americans and US-based Latinos) and TPW Canada.

The Synergos Global Philanthropists Circle (GPC) is a transnational donor education programme designed to provide opportunities for concerned individuals, couples and families to learn about and invest in efforts to tackle poverty in many countries throughout the world. GPC members – which reflect some 50 families from 14 countries – participate in organized trips to other countries (such as Mexico, South Africa and Ecuador) and attend working dinners and retreats hosted by Circle members throughout the world. ‘There’s so much potential today, given the philanthropic capital in the world,’ says Jim Brasher of Synergos. ‘Donors are making their money worldwide – the profit centres of wealth are not in America. If you are doing donor education but not including international donor education, then something is skewed.’

Learning from intermediaries

Donors can also be educated about international giving through global intermediaries such as Grantmakers Without Borders, a funders’ network that recently led a travel seminar for donors to Central America.[2] Other intermediaries (some of which offer formal donor learning opportunities) include issue funds such as the Global Fund for Women, Global Greengrants and the Global Fund for Children, and geographic funds like Give2Asia, the American India Foundation, the Brazil Foundation and Charities Aid Foundation funds for Russia, India and other countries. Educational conferences such as the Global Philanthropy Forum are venues where individuals can become better informed and motivated to give globally.

An innovative and related development is the emergence of ‘travellers philanthropy’ in the travel and tourism field – the world’s largest industry. Philanthropic education and engagement has been creatively woven into some travel-related enterprises such as hotels, resorts, cruise lines and tour operators – often in partnership with non-profit organizations and community foundations – that establish charitable contribution programmes to benefit destinations worldwide. Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel (BEST) has documented these practices in some 80 countries on its website (www.sustainabletravel.org).

Community foundations, small family foundations and financial services firms, which are relatively disengaged from the international scene, also have great potential to educate and engage more donors in global giving. Global funding intermediaries need to develop effective networks, mechanisms and partnerships with such philanthropic vehicles to facilitate international grantmaking.

The field of donor education will certainly look far different in 10-20 years with the arrival of new players, technology and opportunities. This means that those directly or indirectly involved in supporting and engaging donors in learning have an opportunity to think big, test new ideas, and help shape what is likely to be a vital component of the philanthropy world in the coming years.

1 Tracy Gary and Melissa Kohner (2002) Inspired Philanthropy: Your step-by-step guide to creating a giving plan JosseyBass, USA.
2 Gw/oB  has produced Five Reasons to Give Internationally at http://www.internationaldonors.org/advice/why.html

Dan Siegel and Jenny Yancey are co-directors of the Donor Education Initiative (DEI) of New Visions, a non-profit research and consulting organization based in San Francisco. The DEI is funded by the Ford, Hewlett, Kellogg and Packard Foundations. They can be contacted at dsiegel@newvisionsprd.org and jyancey@newvisionsprd.org

Results of the national survey of donor education programmes are available at http://www.newvisionsprd.org

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