How We Give Now: A philanthropic guide for the rest of us

Reviewed by Robin Heller, President, The Athena Advisors

As the title suggests, in her new book Lucy Bernholz is interested not so much in the specific causes to which people give, or even the amounts, but how they give. Arguing that philanthropy in America pays outsize attention to high givers, awarding them with big tax breaks and a high profile, she offers compelling examples of how ‘the rest of us’ contribute to effect meaningful change and social good, through mutual aid societies, crowdfunding, and even our own data.

Bernholz and the team at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab led 30 ‘mapping conversations’ in 2019 with people across the US. It took some prompting, she says, for participants to mention contributions other than money: time volunteered at the library or a political campaign; paying a nephew’s schooling; running a crowdfunding campaign so a colleague could pay for rare medication. She coins the word ‘givingscape’ – the larger philanthropic ecosystem that involves showing up for one another in ways that create community and which can transform society as greatly as do gifts from the (awkwardly-named) ‘high net worth individual’.

In her own words, Bernholz is interested in ‘how the different ways of giving help us connect to each other, to the causes we care about, and to the bigger systems and avenues for change, our political structures’. She wants to place more power in the hands of those outside the direct benefits of capitalism, who give meaningfully but do not receive ‘tax credit’ for it. She looks at what ‘the rest of us’ contribute to make the world better.

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