Last month I had the pleasure of introducing two of my favorite philanthropists. One of them has spent decades making an impact in the community through giving and board service; the other recently re-entered civic life and just created a family foundation. The “new” philanthropist shared that he’s trying to decide how he wants to “give back,” after many years working in the energy industry. The “seasoned” philanthropist quickly responded, “You’re not just giving back. Giving back means that you took something from someone that isn’t yours. Your wealth is yours and you can be generous, if you choose.”
The seasoned philanthropist had a point. Have you ever thought about the difference between giving and giving back?
Giving back is a common term in the philanthropy world, but when you stop and think about it, it really doesn’t capture the true spirit of philanthropy. Giving back implies that you are returning something to where it belongs. It feels obligatory, whereas giving is an act of pure generosity with no requirements or expectations.
The more I’ve thought about the difference between giving and giving back, the more I’ve evaluated my own business approach. In my work, I help donors recognize their passions and how philanthropy can make a difference for the causes they care about. By dreaming with donors about how they can eradicate pediatric cancer or develop new therapies for epilepsy patients, giving becomes inspiring rather than transactional.
Approaching business with this same sense of passion, excitement and possibility is much more enjoyable, and ultimately leads to success. How can you uphold a spirit of giving, rather than giving back? In my experience, it’s important to remember that:
• Giving is personal. Alumni, past clients or former patients certainly might be grateful, but that does not mean they have to give. Approach every person with gratitude for anything they offer you.
• It’s all about perspective. When I served as a board chair in a volunteer capacity, I redesigned the board giving requirements to remove the expectation of a specific dollar amount. Instead I asked my fellow board members to consider making a significant gift. For my family at the time, a significant gift was $500. For others on the board, it was $5,000 or $50. Rather than feeling obligated to give a certain amount, people decided what was right for them. The freedom to give what felt appropriate led to a much more successful campaign.
• Start with the donor. Organizations need to build the case for support and make it clear and concise. It should be tailored to that donor — for some, tugging at the heartstrings works. For others, that is unnecessary and even a turn off. Understanding who you are working with and what they are passionate about is key.
• Everyone can make an impact. There is no better example of this than the recent Change for Children’s fundraiser to support Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs. Local elementary school students gave dimes, quarters and even pennies, which might seem insignificant, but added up to more than $15,000 (and counting) to support the new hospital. These young philanthropists gave at the level they believe is significant, and collectively have made a huge impact.
• Gratitude pays you back. Recognizing the value of a gift, regardless of size, should be inherent to any nonprofit business operation. Honoring a person’s gift is invaluable. It’s well worth the effort to make sure a donor feels appreciated.
Whatever industry you’re in, passion in your approach and gratitude for what’s given has the power to leave a lasting impact. It shapes the way people think about your organization and whether they decide to give to your organization again. Approach everyone as having enormous untapped potential. Then enjoy the journey of discovering the difference you can make together.
Jenny Stafford, philanthropy director at Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation – Colorado Springs, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.