Remember last year when we talked a bit about the virtues of small donors and feelings of season-induced smallness? Dollar Philanthropy even did a post on how cool it was that here at The Women’s Foundation we have programs that enable donors at any level to participate in grantmaking processes.
Well, this holiday season is also bringing on a lot of similar discussion, with bloggers wide and far discussing the big donor vs. small donor question. In sum:
The Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s Give and Take provides a good overview of the discussion taking place between between Don’t Tell the Donor (low-dollar donors matter by showing a broad-based endorsement for an organization’s mission) and The Raiser’s Razor, who asks, "Would you rather have one $100,000 donor or 2,000 $50 donors?"
Gift Hub chimes in in agreement that peer to peer philanthropy with many smaller donors is a power to the people approach that gives organizations and causes a true mandate.
And I guess I find myself somewhere in between. Because if there is anything I’ve learned at The Women’s Foundation–where philanthropic education, leadership and engagement are taken very seriously–it’s that the size of the gift isn’t nearly as important as your true understanding of how you can make your gifts–whether they be monetary, in time or services–really count towards meaningful social change.
Sort of as this paragraph states, from a post on Tactical Philanthropy called "Philanthropy is not just a word." Wendy Bay Lewis attempts to define philanthropy, and examines two articles about "big time" philanthropists, noting that, "The emphasis on their monetary donations seems simplistic. True, they are philanthropists. But more than that…they want to remedy deep educational and economic inequities that nag at their social consciences. I would call them social justice philanthropists."
She goes on to say, "Philanthropy is not one size fits all. Phrases like ‘venture philanthropy’ and ‘engaged philanthropy’ have come into usage to describe strategies where donors take an active role in the organizations they fund. Perhaps ‘social justice philanthropist’ might be used to describe donors, whether traditional or engaged, whose focus is economic, social, and environmental justice. Isn’t philanthropy a tool for social change?"
Lewis begins her piece by saying, "I realize that words like philanthropy have an emotional power that exceeds what a simple definition can convey."
I would agree with this statement and with her vision of a philanthropy that sees beyond the monetary aspect of a gift to what really drives it, to the forces of conscience and choice that motivate a gift.
Is it more worthwhile for instance to focus on the magnitude of Oprah’s investment in a school in South Africa, or to really discuss and learn from the reasons and choices that drove that gift? And to test them against the eventual outcome of her investment?
The latter seems more useful to me, perhaps because a person’s values and the commitment they have to specific issues and strategies are likely to deepen and expand throughout a lifetime, while the amount of available resources a person has available may fluctuate with far more uncertainty.
And if the idea is social change–both of the problem, as well as the philanthropist (which is a natural offset of becoming truly engaged with one’s giving in a "beyond the check" fashion), then a lifelong, concentrated focus on a particular issue or strategy–incorporating learning every step of the way–is likely to have the best shot in the long run.
I think this is the sort of thing Julie Jensen described about her giving–that the real satisfaction in making the gift, and in really seeing an impact, was in truly diving in to an issue and investing in it for the long haul. Julie writes, "This gift went far beyond writing a check. It was a way of seizing my own power, of taking responsibility for a significant decision and investment, and it required me to jump in, to learn, to become an incremental part of the success of this initiative."
Yes, Julie had a million to invest, but my sense is that over a lifetime, investing any amount with a clear sense of purpose in finding the best organizations, the best strategies, the best programs to address a specific problem or issue would lead to a very similar outcome for the philanthropist and is likely to dramatically increase the impact of the gifts.
Whether they’re gifts of $10 or $10 million.