The Gift of Modest Philanthropy

“If you can’t feed one hundred people, then feed just one.” – Mother Teresa

“Philanthropist” is a powerful word. It often conjures up images of high-profile, high-net-worth individuals: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or W. Barron Hilton. It has become synonymous with those who have great wealth, give generously, and impact social change.

As a fundraiser, you can probably list those individuals in your city who are grouped into this esteemed category of givers. And you’re incredibly lucky if your organization has received an investment from them.

“They are fewer, smarter, wiser, wealthier,” a committee member once told me when brainstorming prospects for a capital campaign.

His words gave me pause—not because I doubt these donors’ intelligence, or wisdom, wealth, or ability to impact change in our world through their generosity. It’s just that defining a philanthropist by these terms seemed so . . . meager. So very opposite of the word’s exact definition.

There are hundreds of years of history that have yoked the word philanthropist to upper-middle-class benevolence. This coupling has become even more evident in recent years, when philanthropy has become a chic second career for many wealth creators. Yet, the very definition of philanthropist—a person who desires to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes—makes no mention of class, or intelligence, or—truly—of wealth. It simply speaks of kindness and goodwill, and personal generosity shown through financial giving.

(Fundraisers or not, we certainly all have a story that can attest to the lack of correlation between generosity and wealth, and giving data supports an assertion that the wealthiest donate smaller shares of their income compared to those in lower income brackets.)

Yet, we do give special treatment to our wealthiest “philanthropists.” And, no, I don’t think we should necessarily discourage that in any way. Quite the opposite. When we talk about philanthropists, I think we need to encourage an attitude of more, instead of less.

Let’s stop being meager in our definition of philanthropists. Is your $100 donor a philanthropist? I would argue “yes,” she is. What about your donor who has been giving $15 a month for the last 10 years? Absolutely. How about the millennial who donated $20 at your recent brewery fundraiser? You better believe that you should identify him as a member of the next generation of philanthropists.

While their philanthropy might not be as splashy—and is most likely much more modest—these people represent the very donors whom you and I group into the life-giving and sustaining categories known as “annual givers,” “monthly donors,” and “recurring donors.” These donors may not provide large lump sums, but what they do provide is a predictably steady, typically unrestricted, stream of income. And they are most likely to be your organization’s most dedicated constituents and loyal supporters.

So, what if we all began to think of our low- and mid-level donors as philanthropists—what would change? I bet we’d certainly pay more attention to them. We’d call them by name when we saw them out and about. We’d note their birthdays and anniversaries; we’d reach out on the phone more often, and jot handwritten notes on otherwise standard letters. We’d learn about their “style”—whether they were social and easy-going, or more formal and business-like—and we’d honor their communication preferences. We’d share the impact of their dollar, and ask their advice more often.

Even more important than changing these small, subtle ways we engage, the biggest change might be our perspective—both in-house and in the community. Suddenly, they would no longer be someone giving a donation; they would be a philanthropist making an investment. This simple shift in language creates an enormous shift in our mindset toward these amazing individuals who choose to financially invest in our non-profit’s work—whether at $15 a month or $1,500 a year.

Suddenly, we begin to see philanthropists everywhere. They aren’t fewer, smarter, wiser, and wealthier than everyone else. They are many, well informed, astute, and generous. Their investments are modest, but munificent. They are the life-blood of our organizations, leaving deep imprints with the sheer density of their investments.

As Warren Buffett said when accepting his United Nations award, “The truth is I have never given a penny away that had any utility to me. I am very grateful for this award, I accept this award. But I’d like to accept it not only for myself but for those millions of people who really give away money that’s important to them because they see somebody else where they think they can do more good.”

Philanthropy certainly isn’t “one size fits all”, but that doesn’t mean that bigger is better. Let’s embrace equal opportunity philanthropy and make sure we are giving back to all who give generously (regardless of the size of their investment).


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