Criticizing philanthropists (and philanthropy itself) is all the rage right now.
When donors came to the rescue after Notre Dame burned, critics complained that the money should go elsewhere.
Academics and authors complain that donors are too powerful, and that non-profits are too unaccountable to the public at large.
Journalists and others opine that billionaires are giving to the wrong causes, should be paying more taxes, and come very close to outright saying that philanthropists are unethical and acting in bad faith.
Welcome to 2021… where giving money to charity makes you a bad person.
As fundraisers, non-profit leaders, consultants, and board members, we need to nip this trend in the bud. The war on donors has to stop – today.
There are dozens of reasons why we need to take action now… but in this post, I want to focus on just two of them: first, that the war on donors is misguided and misplaced, and second, that the war on donors will hurt the very people your non-profit is trying to help. Let’s look at both of these concepts…
Reason #1 – The War on Donors is Misguided and Misplaced
Many, if not most, of the arguments of those who are attacking donors boil down to one simple idea: that other people should be able to control how donors give their money, because other people know better than the donors themselves.
Thus, we hear that donors are giving to the wrong causes, and thus foundations should face more oversight. We also hear that government knows better that philanthropists, so the donors should simply be taxed more, so that the government can give the money where it is needed most.
Philanthropists are decried because they give here and not there, or simply because they make so much money and “no one should be able to make that much money.” A fair number of the arguments against donors boil down to simply, “you don’t pay enough in taxes, that’s why you have so much money you can give it away.”
Many of those making these arguments realize that there is something unseemly about trying to tell someone who has made a substantial amount of money, and who is pledging to give much (or most) of it away, that they are making the wrong decisions about how to use their own money. Thus, the interlocutors couch their arguments under the tax laws – in essence, arguing that because donors are not taxed on their donations, they need to be answerable to the public for how and where they donate their money (and not just in the sense that they need to donate it to actual charities… but in the sense that everyone, or at least those making the arguments) should have a say in how the money is spent).
In reality, what the people attacking donors are doing is saying that because the government isn’t going to commandeer 30% of what you want to give to the American Red Cross, it’s only fair that you give the money where we want you to give it. Your hopes, wishes, and vision for a better future don’t matter.
Misguided Ideas and Maligned Philanthropists
I said above that the war on donors is misguided, and it is. The idea that other people, or groups of people, or even governments know better how to spend donors’ philanthropic giving than the donors themselves is ludicrous, to say the least.
Want an easy example? Millions of dollars are spent each year by non-profits trying to help people live healthier lives by eating better and exercising more. The government also runs healthy eating and living programs. In 1992 the US Government introduced the Food Pyramid as a guide to health eating. Sadly, the Pyramid that was introduced was wrong on basic nutrition, encouraging hundreds of millions of Americans to eat carb-heavy diets, despite mounting evidence that the diet guidelines in the Pyramid were unhealthy.
Remember that government programs are decided by people, and people aren’t always right. Elected officials get things wrong, bureaucrats get things wrong, communities get things wrong, companies get things wrong, foundations get things wrong, philanthropists get things wrong. Of course, each of those groups of people also sometimes get things right. If everybody, and every organization, is fallible, then who should get to decide how other people get to spend their own money?
In short, everyone should get to decide how they spend the money they have made. Attacking donors because they decide to give to animal rights causes instead of libraries, or healthcare instead of homelessness, is misguided at best. The idea that you – or a group you support – knows better than the donor themselves is disingenuous and self-serving, to say the least. That’s true even if the group you want to make the decisions is a government or elected body.
Misplaced Complaints about Charitable Giving
One other thing to note: some of those making arguments against philanthropists and philanthropy are themselves supported by charitable giving. It can be hard to take people who complain about donors seriously when they are being supported by donors themselves. I suppose the donors who are supporting their work are “ok,” because they are supporting the right kind of organizations.
Thus, Rob Reich, who wrote Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better, and who has become a poster boy for the anti-donor movement, holds a day job as a professor at Stanford University, which raises over $1 billion per year, some of which presumably pays Professor Reich’s salary.
Others who decry big donors seem to simply thrive (and grow their follower base) on sour grapes. What kind of person couldn’t find joy in the recent news that billionaire Robert F. Smith was going to pay off the student debt of the Morehouse College Class of 2019? The answer is Anand Giridharadas, who wrote Winners Take All, a book complaining about the power the super-rich wield through philanthropy.
Philanthropists who donate (or pledge to donate) substantial portions of the money that they (or their parents or grandparents) worked a lifetime to accumulate should be celebrated and thanked… not scorned by academics, authors, and others with axes to grind.
Reason #2 – The War on Donors Will Hurt Those Your Non-Profit is Trying to Help
If you are working for or with a non-profit organization, don’t get sucked into the negative vortex created by those who are waging the war on donors. Your donors are some of the heroes of your non-profit’s story. If your non-profit does good work – and it does – you need money to be able to carry out that work. Your donors provide that money. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to help ANY of the people that you currently serve.
When cynics say that donors are giving money to the wrong causes – or that they should simply be turning over the money they give to charity to the government instead – they are devaluing your work. They are saying that someone else could be doing better work than you do, or that your donors just might be making the wrong decision by giving to your non-profit.
Your non-profit doesn’t need less money – it needs more money, so that it can do more good in the world.
Here’s the real problem though… the more donors are berated in the press, or by authors, or on websites or social media, for their giving decisions, the less they will give. You may think that this is a problem that won’t affect you, because most of the philanthropists being skewered are mega-donors, and maybe your non-profit doesn’t count any billionaires on its donor file. Don’t be fooled… if the war on donors continues, every donor – of every giving level – will eventually hear about it, even if they don’t directly feel its sting. This will lead to reduced giving as donors become shyer about their giving choices becoming public.
In short, the war on donors will lead to reduced giving across the board. This will affect your non-profit… doubly so if your staff or organization joins the chorus calling donor choices into question. Resist the urge!
Less than 20 years ago, the non-profit world was celebrating Penelope Burk’s pivotal book, Donor Centered Fundraising. The book (now in its second edition) helped many non-profits move from being organization-centered in their fundraising to being donor-centered… figuring out ways to put donors in the middle of the story, to make them feel like part of your team… to help all of us see the donor as one of the main heroes in the story your non-profit is telling. The current war on donors is the antithesis of being donor-centered.
If your non-profit wants to raise more money to do more good in the world, avoid the war on donors at all costs. Better yet, speak out against it every chance you get. Tell everyone who will listen that your donors are lifeblood of your work… that without them, and the millions of others who give to charity each year, there would be very real consequences for those our non-profits serve. People would starve, diseases would go untreated, the homeless would find no shelter, the young would be less educated…
Your non-profit matters, and your work matters. Because of that, your donors matter. Let’s not forget that fact… today, or ever.
Photo Credit: Food Bank CNEC