Renata Rafferty on Dinosaur Philanthropy

Philanthropy consultant Renata Rafferty, who Doris Buffett (Warren’s sister) says “is the class act of the charitable sector. Every major donor in the country should have the opportunity to hear [her] speak  — [she has] had an enormous impact on my foundation’s giving.”, responds to my last post. I have a hunch that her post is going to resonate with a lot of people in the field:

My concern is that “we” (and the quotation marks are whole other discussion) are increasingly focusing on foundations and social venture/social entrepreneurship leaders as the “A list,” the cool kids, the ones who “know where it’s at.”

Those of “us” (see above) on the “cutting edge” of philanthropy (be it tactical, strategic, entrepreneurial, or philanthrocapitalistic) tend to navel gaze, looking ever more deeply into how our groovy new ways of thinking about philanthropy are … well, groovy.

One-the-ground reality in everyday communities, however, is more about gala slippers on the ground than eco-friendly boots on the ground.

I live in an extraordinarily wealthy community, where millions change hands between individuals and families (sometimes through a tax structure called a family foundation)and the nearly 300 charities in our area.

And influence plays a HUGE role in where the money goes — but the influence has little to do with a real understanding or examination of community needs, community assets, and who is doing fine and deserving work. And as to focused giving (”tactical” is so far from just basic focus), there is little focus.

Perhaps this is because there is no community discussion around issues of vision, change, need, leveraging of resources. etc. Most of these people have never heard of (or if they have heard, don’t care about) the Chronicle, CoF, SVPs, blogs, tweets, web-based forums, etc. centering on philanthropy.

Sometimes I feel like one of the few left on the dock watching the philanthropy boat sail away, leaving behind the well-intentioned, kind, caring, wealthy people who are so generous with their giving, but who just aren’t part of the “cool crowd.”

I affectionately refer to them as the “dinosaur philanthropists” who pump the majority of contributed funds into the sector each year, with such innocent naiveté (or calculated high-society motives) as to be awe-inspiring (they are feted at annual Philanthropy Day luncheons) but less than truly effective.

It will be years before those who take changemaking seriously are in the majority — or have the majority of the money that will flow into the sector. Do we simply ignore two generations of donors who don’t “get” the cutting edge stuff?

Do we foster a disservice to those generous people and to the cause of philanthropy as a whole by rushing to the new-fangled Web 2.0 social media techniques and telling them, at some point, that their rabbit ears (galas) are obsolete and analog (quid pro quo giving) is SO not where it’s at?

Lately, I wonder whether I should leave the field of philanthropy — perhaps it has already left me. I continue to plod along, sweet donor by sweet donor, showing each how one CAN about change the world, and get excited about it, by just thinking about and focusing on what they believe is central to the human experience.

That’s why I bothered to re-write and expand “Don’t Just Give It Away” (what a crass title!) rather than let it rest in peace after ten years of being a best-seller among the dinosaur crowd.

The new book is bodaciously titled “Smart Generosity: Everything You Need to Know About Charity, Philanthropy, and Giving Wisely.” I worried that the “cool kids” would slam me for writing such a “simplistic” primer and suggesting that it covers “everything” you need to know. But the reality is, it does. To use an analogy, it teaches you how to ride a good old-fashioned bike safely and enjoyably.

Once a giver has mastered that,they have the basic skills preparatory to contemplating Harley-class philanthropy — be it tactical, strategic, entrepreneurial or philanthrocapitalistic.

So, can I still hang out with the “cool kids” even if I don’t feel I belong?


  1. Wow, what a truly, truly awesome post. As’s Social Entrepreneurship blogger, not only can you hang, you can lead. Keep kicking butt (and teaching us along the way).

  2. Catherine Pyke says:

    Renata is right that the preponderance of people with means who are inclined to give will continue to fund in traditional ways. Little is served by denigrating their contributions. Dinosaurs or not, these people can be counted on, in good times and bad, to support causes that they and the larger community care about. Unless we are prepared to see major organizations of the community — schools, theatres, museums, medical centers, go down in the flames of economic ruin, we need to find a way, as Renata so eloquently explains, to encourage them to continue to give and to feel a vital part of the learning community.

  3. No doubt Catherine. You certainly can’t influence “dinosaur philanthropy” if you are busy “denigrating” it!

    It is not about rejecting the old and embracing the new. It is about integrating the best of both.