Conspicuous Generosity

May 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

Forbes recently published an article positing the question of whether or not the age of “conspicuous philanthropy” was coming to an end. Citing a trend in anonymous giving, author Judith Dobrzynski asks whether having a donor’s name in lights with a big naming gift may be a thing of the past.

Some people are motivated to give by the promise of having their name up in lights, naming a building or a scholarship in their honor, that would remain for generations. From the institution’s point of view, naming opportunities is good stewardship. It gives the donor the chance to see concretely how their dollars make a difference in the community, as well as honoring the donor’s generosity.

In my view, philanthropy is a responsibility, like the concept of tithing, and people should give as much as they are able to the causes they believe in. Even so, in our culture philanthropy is a choice, and those of in the business offundraising know that the gift has to give something to the donor. If making the gift doesn’t generate positive feelings, then there’s no motivation for the donor.

Philanthropy is always motivated by emotions and what is going to make us feel better about ourselves. Whether it is shame, love, jealousy, or good old-fashioned egotism, I think that deep down people understand that public philanthropy (call it conspicuous if you like) is simply modeling good behavior.

One of my former employers, a large, presigious university, organized a series of fundraising dinners at the homes of volunteers. These were initimate gatherings of classmates, no more than ten couples, where the host would give a presentation about the campaign. At the end of the talk, they disclose to their friends the gift they were pleding, and what influenced their decision.

At that point, the friends around the table felt compelled to also pledge, wheter it was out of competition, love for the school, or responsibility. The actions of the donors and volunteers were able to personally tap into the emotions that influenced further philanthropy from their social circle. This model had tremendous success during that campaign, cultivating new donors and volunteers for the institution.

While the age of the mega-gifts may be coming to an end, or at least a significant slow-down, I hope that anonymous giving is not a trend that will take hold. Especially in these exceptional times, philanthropists should lead by example and continue to give generously and conspicuously.

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