Reviewed by Angela Seay Trustee, Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation.
The world of philanthropy can be difficult to navigate for both donors and fundraising professionals. Drawing on her experience as a donor, Los Angeles based philanthropist Lisa Greer seeks to educate fundraisers, and share her views on a philanthropy sector that she perceives as ineffective. The author offers critiques and provides solutions to create ‘collaborative and effective’ partnerships. However, the audiences for this book may find it difficult to accept some of her suggestions for change. Too much effort is spent airing personal grievances with the sector. While the book addresses key areas where institutions could improve, its tendency to catastrophise philanthropy and its practice may alienate some of the very people the author is trying to persuade.
Greer’s book is at its best when questioning fundraising practices that are problematic or out-of-date – poor communications; weak board structure and governance; inadequate donor stewardship; expensive, labour intensive galas and other old-fashioned approaches to cultivation of donors. She offers a variety of reasonable suggestions for improvement. For example, a clear case for more strategic communications with donors. Rather than communicate too often or too urgently, she suggests developing a communications strategy that focuses on ‘the big picture’, connecting selectively to help the donor understand your work, not inundate them with information. Greer suggests that non-profits rethink large galas in the way they are conducted, with greater consideration to the actual event, or instead host other, smaller and more substantive events. This method can lead to more meaningful conversations about the work of the organisation and allow donors to feel more intimately connected.
Alongside these criticisms, it may have been useful to recognise examples of best practice in the sector; this book does not give them their due. Many of the solutions and ideas that she notes are already in place in professional fundraising operations.
The author, in fairness, acknowledges the negative role donors can play in philanthropy, but it is clear that she feels the main problem lies with fundraisers. In a discussion of overhead costs, for example, she seems to blame the sector for not seeking overhead or operational costs. The reality, more often, is inflexibility or inexperience on the part of donors who refuse to fund these costs.
Greer despairs at some fundraisers, but opportunities to provide empathic solutions are too often missed. In a chapter discussing the imbalance in philanthropy’s power dynamic, one anecdote simply highlights elite privilege – the chef on a private yacht injured himself and the captain was too anxious to seek medical help, worried he would ruin the happy experience of his wealthy clients – rather than showing ways for philanthropy to break down these divides.
The author peppers her work with experiences which would demoralise any good development officer, especially when referring to fundraisers as ‘getting money out of me’, and to having ‘been lied to, manipulated, and strong-armed – all in the name of giving’.
While such cynical fundraising behaviour should have no place, disrespecting a whole sector you seek to help may not be the best approach. The nurturing of mutual respect and trust, and an honest discussion of difficulties, would work far better. Greer clearly knows this, but Philanthropy Revolution does not contain enough of the deeper reflection that is necessary for a true revolution in philanthropy.
About the book:
Author: Lisa Greer
Published by Harper Collins
Price: £20 hardback
To order: harpercollins.co.uk