Saturday, August 07, 2010

The question of philanthropy

These last few weeks I've had the opportunity for a few trainings at work about fundraising - a couple of them looked at a report (Giving USA 2010) on the history of philanthropic giving in 2009 and gave their interpretations of that report. While the two perspectives were very different, there were a few insights that were shared at both classes that I find very interesting.

First, when you look at the total amount of money that is donated to philanthropic causes (which includes religious institutions), about 75% of it comes from individuals - not corporations, federal or private grants or foundations. Just in case any of you were wondering if the money you give really does make a difference - it does! AND, even with the recession, 2009 was the third year in a row that philanthropic giving in the US topped $300 BILLION! I don't know about you, but I find that number a bit mind boggling to wrap my head around.

Second, when you look at the amount of money that individuals contributed, a large percentage of that money was contributed by only a handful of people - VERY wealthy people (Bill Gates, for one). So maybe that $20 I give isn't make that big a difference in comparison, but when I have billions of dollars at my personal disposal, I'd like to think that I'll do something positive with it. Which leads me to another piece of information that I've heard referenced several times in the last few weeks - the billionaire's challenge. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are calling other wealthy people and challenging them to give large portions of their wealth to philanthropic causes - they even have a website,, where you can see what pledges have been made, by whom, and even read their personal letters that explain to whom they give and why. Some of the names are well known, others not as much, but each have their reason for giving and encouraging others to give.

It got me thinking - why do I give to the places I do? How do I determine how much I "can afford" to give? Generally I give to places that seem important to me for one reason or another - I give to my own place of business (since I thoroughly believe in the mission), I give to my church, I give to organization fighting for causes I believe in, such as gay rights in the church and in our country, I give to environmental organizations that are doing work I believe makes sense, etc. If I actually look though my check book and credit card statements to compile a profile of all the places I give money, it's interesting to see how varied it is and how much money over all I end up giving. It's mostly a little bit here and another little bit there. Now I'm wondering if i wouldn't be better giving more money to fewer places, making more of an impact. I don't know.

So now let me pose this question - do you give? Do you know why you give and how you decide to whom to give how much? Please share!


PnB said...

i was raised in a strict Presbyterian community where the 1/10th of all income was considered automatically to be given to the Church. although i'm not a Christian and don't believe that the Church is the best conduit for charity, i personally believe that if a person is materially comfortable he/she should should participate in helping the less fortunate, especially in a country like India, where i live.
2ndly, i like the fact you pointed out that it is individuals, and not large organizations that donated the most. Charity is very much a subjective and individual thing for me, fuel more by emotion rather than reasoning- as with most people, i think. I distrust profit making organizations when they make big donations with all the pomp and ceremony because it looks like a PR exercise, to show that the company cares for the community and all that.

mandyc said...

Thanks for the comment, PnB. I'm curious about how philanthropy works there in India - is it similar to here in the US? I've never been there (but would love to go someday) but have friends with relatives there and they talk about the poverty there as such a huge issue just looking at the numbers of people. Of course, poverty is an issue everywhere, but I'd like to know if people outside of religion (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or otherwise) learn about giving to those less fortunate and how it is generally done.
Here in the US, I think you're right that it's mostly done by individuals for emotional reasons - we give to the medical research cause for the disease that took a loved one, we get teary eyed at a commercial on tv with sad eyes looking at us, pleading to call in a donation, etc. But those emotions only go so far - there was a great outpouring in the immediate aftermath of Hurrican Katrina & the earthquake in Haiti, for example. But then we hear about donor fatigue and people feeling pulled too many directions at once. As someone in the nonprofit sector, dependent on people's donations to keep my job, how would you suggest we continue to keep people interested?