The Art of Giving: Part I

An important new philanthropy book has hit bookstores nation wide. The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan, by Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon (Chairman and President of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies respectively) is one of the best books I’ve read that captures the knowledge of professional grantmakers and distills it down to a readable, useable, functional book targeted at individual donors.

Today, I’m going to be featuring a guest post from Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Solomon. Tomorrow, in cooperation with the publisher Jossey-Bass, I’m going to run a long excerpt from chapter one of the new book. On Friday, the authors will offer a set of questions that every donor should consider. My hope is that readers will take the opportunity to discuss WHY they give, a topic given top priority in The Art of Giving and a topic that rational, metric focused, impact maximizing donors sometimes forget to address.

As an added incentive to spur along the conversation, 21/64 a philanthropy consulting arm of the Bronfman Philanthropies that specializes in generational transition, will be giving away free sets of their Picture Your Legacy tool. The tool contains 52 colorful images designed to spark discussion among funders of any generation, facilitating greater understanding of an individual and groups’ philanthropic identity and aspirations. We’ll be giving away 25 free sets of the Picture Your Legacy tool to the first 25 readers who offer substantive responses to this three part series of posts via comments.

What motivates you to give?

By Charles Bronfman & Jeffrey Solomon

Philanthropy is often thought of as “Step 1” in the social benefit supply chain. Dollars help to fuel mission-driven nonprofits, which in turn provide aid and assistance to under-served and needy populations. In this model, funding is the primary input and social benefit is the primary output. One shortcoming with this model, however, is that the end-user is the primary beneficiary in the system. In the medium term, it does not capture the intrinsic return to the funders, organizations, volunteers, and many others players that make up the supply chain itself.

As philanthropists/donors/funders, we spend so much time thinking about how to maximize social benefit through our activities, that often we lose sight of the personal benefits that we experience from these endeavors. And let there be no doubt, giving can and should be a deeply rewarding experience. Ironically, the pleasure received through giving can be just as tangible, and arguably just as important to the overall success of the social sector as a 501(c)3’s ability to execute against its mission.

At face value, what we’re saying is not revolutionary. Obviously, the more rewarding philanthropy is for the donor, the more likely he/she is to do more of it. And even if this is a self-evident truth to folks within the Tactical Philanthropy community, it should not be minimized. However, we believe that understanding the WHY behind our respective giving decisions is critical in a much more literal sense – particularly in these depressed economic conditions when often we’re asked to decide between a multitude of worthy causes and grantees.

Whether you sit at the helm of a family foundation, are looking to invest with a donor-advised fund, or simply want to increase your annual giving percentage, it is essential to understand WHY you give. Only when we are equipped with such an understanding are we able to determine which deserving project is simply interesting as opposed to something that will resonate with us at a fundamental level. The WHY becomes our giving compass, which in turn informs our basic giving strategy (the vehicle, outlets, structures, and gift types that we use.).

Thinking about it in these terms, the donor who understands the WHY behind his or her giving will likely be more invested in their gift. They might become a passionate and outspoken advocate for the cause, or take a board seat. They will likely follow the philanthropic return on their gift and use this information to support specific gaps that have been shown to exist – capacity building, marketing, fundraising, and programs.

Another way of getting at the WHY is to ask what motivates you to give? Does your giving manifest as increased self-worth, or perhaps a boost in your social status? Does it feed your ego or provide you with a profound sense of purpose? Perhaps your giving is a tool for bringing your family together in a meaningful way. We think all of these are perfectly valid reasons for giving. However each indicates a drastically different approach to how you go about doing philanthropy.

From our perspective, all donors can and should find personal reward through the act of giving. But it’s not enough to have a vague sense of doing good … you should be able to articulate what you get clearly. Only by understanding what motivates you to give are you able to really nourish your soul, and in so doing, maximize the impact of your gifts for all of society.

What motivates you to give?


  1. Craig says:

    What motivates me to give? A good question and one that I’ve never really articulated, but when I think about it there are three clear reasons why I give to certain charities.

    The first is as a thank you. I donate regularly to a nonprofit I used to work for, as a thank you for the opportunities that they gave me early in my career. I also donate to a charity who has helped care for members of my family.

    Secondly, I give based on my beliefs. At university I studied, and developed a passion for, human rights and have supported a number of nonprofits who work in this area and carry out work I believe in.

    Finally, I reserve the rest of my giving to personal requests. These are often from friends / family doing events etc. In a sense I’m not really giving to the nonprofit, but to the person as I want to support them. As long as the charity isn’t something I object to, then I will give.

    Look forward to reading the rest of the articles.



  2. Jeff Mason says:

    We all need to understand that philanthropy has consequences. Giving that is driven by a desire to feel good, boost social status, or to strengthen family ties is problematic. It is selfish and overlooks what philanthropy should really focus on – helping those in need. Philanthropy driven solely by a desire to feel good may in fact lead to funding an organization that is ineffective or even harmful. YES, NONPROFITS CAN UNKNOWINGLY CAUSE HARM.

    Philanthropy should feel good. However, it should feel good because we know that we are funding an organization capable of improving the lives of those in need. This means we either need to seek out organizations with high-performing characteristics or we need to be willing to provide time and resources to help an organization to transform into a high-performer. As Sean has discussed previously, high-performing orgs are those with clear and reasonable goals, a well thought-out strategy for reaching its goals, identified milestones/indicators that can be used to measure progress towards its goals, the ability to collect quality data that relates their efforts to their outcomes so they can understand what works and what doesn’t, and the use of data to make midcourse corrections to continuously improve. Organizations that don’t do these things are working blind and will only achieve their goals accidentally.

    Philanthropists should take pleasure in knowing that they have funded capable organizations that are most likely to address the serious social issues that we face.

  3. Craig, so then am I right that your giving is motivate in large part by a desire to express your beliefs (human rights) and by your desire to connect with and support the community of people around you?

  4. Jeff, I get your response on a logical level. We’ve talked about this a lot and you and I agree on much of this. But I’d be interested to hear WHY you give. It is clear from this comment and others you have posted, that you are highly motivated to be sure that the giving you do results in the most impact. But the question remains: Why do you give in the first place?

  5. Jeff Mason says:

    Sean, I give because I want to affect some change. I want to make a difference. I want to help someone who needs help.

    Years ago, I was unaware of the consequences of my giving. I would give simply because I was touched emotionally. This could have been from a brochure or a plea from someone on the street. Although my motivation for giving has remained the same over the years my current understanding of the potential consequences of my philanthropy has changed the way i give. Today, I won’t give unless I have an understanding of the capabilities of the org and how my investment will help them move closer to their goals.

  6. Got it. If you think of your “why” as “I want to make a difference”, then it makes a lot of sense that you would want to support nonprofits that actually make a difference! I think the “make a difference” reason is widespread, which is why I think smart giving done right is actually more emotionally satisfying rather than less.

    But I’m also think that there are other important, good reasons to give.

  7. Craig says:

    Sean, I think that is a fair summary. Wonder if it will change as I get older?

  8. Madmunk says:

    I like what I’m hearing about this book, and I’m really enthused by this post from Bronfman and Solomon. The trouble I tend to have with more professional philanthropy is that it tends to minimize the personal, soulful side of things that donors feel.

    Think of another art turned business: music. Your garage band signs a record deal, and suddenly your group’s music gets to more people through more media than ever before. There are days, though, when you wonder if you can recover that sense you had about the music before the band became a business. In much the same way that an artist might try to preserve or recover some sense of authenticity amid the smoke and mirrors, I think it’s valuable to preserve some sense of the artful, the personal, and the civic in the professional, the strategic, and the tactical of modern philanthropy.

    Why do I give? I give in part to make a difference. That’s how I know I exist, in a way. The world is better – or at least different – because of my actions.

    But I’d have to say that I give and volunteer because that’s what I have to do to be the person I am. I’m a son, a brother, a husband, a neighbor, a parishioner, and a citizen, among other things. I didn’t “choose” these bonds the same way that I “chose” to enter organized philanthropy. It’s not that I don’t want to make a difference. That’s like saying a musician doesn’t want to make money playing music. It’s just that I’m obligated to give. I was born into a set of roles that require me to give, if I’m to remain faithful to that which makes me who I am.

    If you’re a musician, playing music is what musicians do, so you play and you play even if no one hears you. You might not do it for very long, but if the music is there, you play. Period. So it is with giving. At least for me.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to this book.

  9. Great post. I once listed a number of reasons why I don’t give when asked, and wonder whether they’d provide some insights here.

    The original list is here, offered in response to a blog post by Tori Tuncan, the founder of Lend4Health. She asked why people didn’t give to her cause (microloans to assist families with medical expenses).

    On that list:
    * feeling overwhelmed by requests
    * feeling a kind of “survivor’s guilt” (don’t know how else to describe it, something like “if I can’t help everyone it’s unfair for me to single out one cause/organization”)
    * too inconvenient to go through the technical steps (whether online via credit card, writing a check, etc., sometimes it just seems hard to fit it in)
    * finances are tight and “giving money away” doesn’t feel right
    * trusting that other people will take up the slack, that the program-organization-work won’t be left undone if I say no
    * because my saying no won’t be taken personally
    * because there will always be a “next time” and I can always say yes then

    It’s worth noting that this is the thought-process for considering a donation/loan to an organization that I believe is making a difference, is well run, has tangible positive impact, etc. etc. Where logic and intellect would dictate “Support this group!” these thoughts & feelings stopped me.

    Here’s the interesting thing to me: After taking the time to really consider why I’d never given a loan to Lend4Health, and without negating the validity of those reasons, I started loaning to them. Not large amounts, and not daily or even monthly, but I give.

    I can remember clearly looking at the list of reasons and thinking, “Yup, all true, and none of them are more important than the work Tori and Lend4Health are doing. Get over yourself and your issues, stop outsourcing impact, and do what you can.”

  10. Dan Pallotta says:

    Great post and a thought-provoking observation. I agree completely that giving nourishes our souls. It’s not “self-less” at all. To call it selfless is to pitch the whole bargain backwards.

    That giving nourishes us has very big implications. It means we can market to the desire for that nourishment. It means we can build more demand to be nourished in that way, in the same way that companies market to our desire for music and film.

    Charitable giving has remained constant at about 2% of GDP ever since we’ve measured it. Charity is not taking market share from the for-profit sector. Why? because it isn’t marketing, not on anywhere near the scale the for-profit sector does.

    What if by exciting the natural desire to give, we could make that figure 4%? That would change the world.

  11. Thanks for the great response Madmunk. In case you missed it, I wrote a blog post about how philanthropy is similar to music. You can check it out here.

  12. Great point Dan. Can I ask why you personally give?

  13. Many years in the nonprofit sector have changed why I give. I used to give because I believed in a cause. And sometimes I would give because friends asked me.

    Over the years, however, I’ve seen so much ineffectiveness that I avoid giving altogether if all I know is that the cause is a good one, even if asked by friends. Sad stories alone don’t sway me anymore.

    Now, there is only one reason why I give: to help the people the nonprofit exists to serve (within a cause I care about, of course). This was always the most important, but I used to assume that it would happen. Now that I know I can’t assume it, I only give if the organization can provide information that makes me reasonably confident that they are indeed making a difference to people (or if the organization seems to be on track toward becoming able to demonstrate that they are making a difference). That information is not always available, in which I case I decline to give.

    I believe in helping vulnerable people, and nonprofits need to show that they are a vehicle to do that.

  14. George Overholser says:

    Thanks to Charles and Jeffrey for raising this very central topic in such a clear-headed way.

    Ever since Adam Smith, many have marveled at how often”selfish” behavior can lead to good results for the community as a whole. Perhaps our system of charitable giving should have its own version of “the invisible hand”.

    The for-profit system works because the wants and whims of selfish customers are held in check by the motives of those who “own” the enterprise. Customers seek to exploit firms as aggresively as they can and firms push back just enough to keep the enterprise healthy while also innovating as best they can to keep prices competitive.

    In the end, the firms push back AND get better. So society is better off.

    The key, of course, is to be well-capitalized enough that you CAN push back against an overly-exploitative customer without without missing payroll while you search for a customer that fits. This, indeed, is a key role for equity. (Sometimes we call it “no capital”!)

    Nonprofit funders also seek to exploit the firm – for the good of society and…. as Charles and Jeffrey imply… for a whole host of other good motivations that MAY or MAY NOT coincide with an organization’s particular theory of change.

    IN THEORY, I have no problem with bending for funders. For example, IN THEORY, I see nothing wrong with throwing gala’s, or concocting PR stunts, SO LONG AS THE EFFORT IS WELL REWARDED by a net gain to program revenues.

    I worry, though, that often nonprofits suffer from profound lack of formal equity-like stakeholders. These are the in-the-boardroom stakeholders who both SAY “no” to propositions that are long-term unhealthy to the enterprise and also FUND “no” by structuring equity-like grants that only kick when healthy money-for-program execution revenues cannot be found.

    These are decidedly NOT the funders who lay out near-term deliverables that are intended to “drive” performance.

    Among for-profits, its obvious who the equity stakeholders are. Not so among nonprofits.

    [By the way, like most I bet, my giving is motivated by the abstract goal of truely making a difference for others, by the close-in goal of modeling charitable behaviors among my peers and family, AND by the sheer delight of spreading good will.

    I once imagined what would happen if instead of showing me the beautiful bouquet my mom would soon recieve, a florist opened up her ledger for me to inspect. “YUCK! YOU’RE MESSING WITH MY GIVING EXPERIENCE!”]

  15. Aaron Stiner says:

    I like this question, “why do I give?” because it begs deeper questions of ourselves that help us gain clarity on a number of levels, including our purpose in life, the values we hold for ourselves, our families and our communities and the vehicles through which I choose to give.

    On the purpose front, one reason I give is to provide opportunities for success to as many people as possible and I think nonprofit organizations are an amazing vehicle to provide those opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have them. This relates strongly to what I consider a big part of my life purpose: connecting individuals to opportunities for success.

    On the values question, another reason I give is to create a healthy global eco-system because I value clean air, clean water and living in balance with all the life forms on this planet. I value these things for myself, my family and my community and I look for ways in which I can apply my giving that supports these values.

    As for applying the “why do I give?” question to giving vehicles, I, for example, give a large part of my annual contribution to my local United Way. Why I do this is because I believe setting aside my nonprofit contribution from my check before it even hits my bank account allows me to first share a portion of my income before I save or spend what I make. I also believe United Way is very effective at monitoring needs, holding organizations accountable and funding organizations of all sizes that might not otherwise have the funds to market or fundraise on their own.

    There are a lot of “whys” tied up in that one gift to United Way. And because I have taken the time to understand how United Way works and can relate that to “why do I give”, then I am satisfied with my gift to them.

    I am sure there are many ways the “why do I give?” question can be applied. I have given just three applications here: why do I give as it relates to my life purpose, why do I give as it relates to the values I hold for myself, my family and my community and why do I give as it relates to the vehicle(s) for my giving.

    I believe finding these whys, and others, can as the authors suggest, lead to more satisfied donors. More satisfied donors, we hope, will give more. I also think, as Dan suggests, if we can engage non-donors in conversations about how a gift to a nonprofit organization can satisfy their life’s whys, then we can potentially pull in even more giving. We also need to be engaging foundations and corporations and yes, even government in the questions of why do they give and how nonprofit organizations can satisfy their varied whys.

    I also believe sharing these whys with the nonprofit organizations a donor chooses to work with can be tremendously helpful for the donor and the nonprofits. If I as a donor can talk with a nonprofit about how my gift is trying to fulfill my purpose, for example, then I can find common ground with that organization’s vision, opening the possibility for a longer more satisfying relationship for both donor and nonprofit. If I talk with a nonprofit about the whys around the values I hold for myself, my family and my community, then I can begin to understand how that nonprofit uses my gift to achieve particular outcomes within its vision, and I will be satisfied with my gift – I also might be more likely to give more and be worried less about overhead ratios then I am about impact. Then, I can talk to the nonprofit about why I choose particular giving vehicles and find a match within their giving programs, or even create new ways of giving within that organization. And here is the great part, I think, if donors and nonprofit organizations don’t find a match on the whys, then they can shake hands and walk away knowing they had an open honest dialogue based on the core reasons, or whys, each of them brings to the table. What a great way for donors and nonprofit organizations to work together!

  16. Doug says:

    It is simple. I give because I already have more than I need, and there are too many people that don’t. I give because I have been blessed to give. I give because it feels good. I give for the joy of it.

  17. Maureen says:

    Thank you for such a great post! I grew up in a very engaged family and giving (time, resources and when possible, money) was never questioned, it just was. To Madmunk’s point – it was just part of who I was. So after some introspection, and boiling it down to just the essentials:
    I give to be part of my community, locally and globally.

    Everything else boils down to that one statement.

    Excited for the future posts and the book. I look forward to sharing this activity with all who will listen!

  18. Laura Deaton says:

    I give because I can.
    I give because I care.
    I give because I love.
    I give because I’m worried.
    I give because others don’t.
    I give because it gives me peace.
    I give because I’m asked in a way that reaches me deeply.
    I give because I’m human.

    I do not give to those who speak angry words.
    I do not give to those who believe they are better than others.
    I do not give to those who seek to divide instead of unite.
    I do not give to those who already have as much as they need.
    I do not give to those who wish to wage war, whether actually or metaphorically, against others.

  19. This is a great conversation.

    One of the things we always did with students at our programs at Northwestern is start by examining motivations.

    We did this NOT to convince them that their motivations were wrong, or needed to be a particular way, or even to get them to shift their behavior, but because our M.O. was to get people hooked on contributing to the greater good for their whole lives.

    In that context, “sustainability” becomes about finding a way to contribute to the world that is sustainable with your individual aspirations – career, style of life, etc. Not everyone can or should be a social entrepreneur. Not everyone can or should be a international development practitioner. Everyone can and should figure out what their commitment to the world means for them.

    I’ve never really believed in “selfless” acts of giving. I do, however, believe in self-aware giving. What we’ve found is that when you ask people to examine their motivations, they get better at giving. The reason is that what most people are looking for is the feeling of having made a real difference in a tangible way. If you can break it down to that level, you can help nudge them towards experiences where that desire can be manifest in the most effective ways possible.

  20. Michele Gartner says:


    I think this is a very important reflection for individual donors. Knowing the WHY of doing anything helps us do the HOW better. Knowing why we give (why we are driven to give) can better help us understand how we want to give.

    The facsinating part of giving is that it is so varied – and I believe, is pretty irrational. Maybe we think we want metrics and quantative numbers to help us along, but at the end of the day – we want to know that we are helping an issue for which we care deeply.

    As a people, we receive satisfaction from giving.

    Why do I give? (I smile – of finances, of time, of career) I give because I believe it takes each person to make change. That sitting back and watching is not an option. Because at its very basic level – giving really does connect folks, has the amazing potential to unite communities, and reminds us of our humanity.

    Thanks for helping us reflect!

    (That’s why this entire field is so incredibly interesting – we can swing from psychology to finance to politics in a single breath.)

  21. Phil Cubeta says:

    Excellent post and an excellent book. Charles and Jeffrey have the standing to speak for motivation that is non-economic. They give for reasons that go beyond a cost benefit analysis, or social investment return calculation. They remind us implicitly that giving grows from traditions that are in many ways pre-economic. We give because it is a moral obligation, because we are the beneficiaries of gifts, because life is a gift, because we are recipients of grace and it gracious to pass that gift along; we give because we are offended at something or want to preserve or change something in the world; we give out of supersititious dread (“God,” one major donor told me, “gave me this wealth and if I don’t share it he will be pissed off and that it back.”) We give as we give a libation in thanks. We give as a mother gives milk out of love. We give because we are investors and MBAs and have performed some intricate calculation. We give because we want to hold others accountable to us and like to subordinate them to us, as at work, through metrics. We give because we are sunk in spreadsheet logic and this gives us another chance to use Excel. We give for the tax deduction, for status, for our name on a building (what Charles and Jeffrey call “the edifice complex.”). We give to project ourself, in Paul Schervish’s phrase, as world historical ‘hyperagents.” We give out of hubris, vainglory, and spiritual pride. We give to be an example for our children. We give out of a sense of justice (tzedakah) We give to cleanse a reputation, or greenwash a company. We give as marketing ploy. We give to get. We give because what goes around comes around. We give because we are asked. We give because we don’t know how to say No. We give because the whole theory that humans are primarily selfish is foolish. We give because humans are gregarious, social creatures who share a common fate on a fragile planet, as children of God, or as castoffs of Fate. We give for many reasons, as various as the reasons for love or art. Charles and Jeffrey have provided a service in speaking from personal experience about some of the personal motives that drive otherwise rational creatures to help others. It still beats me why they would. I have read and reread Ayn Rand and I am still baffled. Why would anyone help another? Weaklings!

  22. Michele writes: “Knowing the WHY of doing anything helps us do the HOW better.” That’s the key right there. I think people who work so hard on HOW to give, especially those who focus on analytical approaches, need to reflect more on WHY they give and why others give.

    Thanks for the incredibly important point Michele!

  23. Phil, thanks for the list of many reasons. Some good, some not, some not good nor bad, just real. Your list and Michele’s comment makes it clear to me, that a company wishing to engage in greenwashing might not be well served by Jeff Mason’s urging to give with a focus on outcomes (See comment #2)!

  24. Lowell Weiss says:

    Bill Gates often talks about a simple formula that has been the key for him in engaging others in philanthropy and helping them find personal reward in their giving. 1. People need to see with their own eyes the problems that exist in the world that might align with their organic interests and passions. 2. They need to see “solutions”–that is, the different ways that smart, committed leaders are addressing these problems successfully. 3. Once they decide to invest their time, treasure, and/or talent, they need to understand the impact of their giving. If they get all three, more often than not, a virtuous cycle sets in and donors want to learn more deeply, engage more deeply, invest more of their time and resources.

    I take no issue whatsoever with the importance of clarifying the “why” of giving. But this is a slightly different approach. It’s more about donors clarifying for themselves that their resources can make a real difference on real issues that really matter–and then finding wonderfully positive rewards as they refine their efforts to achieve deeper and deeper impact over time.

  25. Shelly K. says:

    I give through micro-finance.

    When I give, I feel like I am throwing money into a dark expanse, hoping that at least one of my “coins” will hit a target: someone who is eager to improve their circumstances, and just needs a little bit of help to do so.

    I give, because I still remember my own moments of need, when I would never admit I was hungry, or homeless, yet some kind soul invited me for supper, or pressed upon me some money for train fare to work. I still remember how those small gifts transformed me, infusing me with hope, giving me the physical and emotional strength to keep on going, keeping on reaching higher.

    I don’t think the people who gave to me could ever know how enormously they impacted my life. My wish, when I give, is that every once in a while I should be granting some echo of my younger self a similar experience.

    So I give in gratitude for those who have helped me, and in remembrance of my own struggles.

  26. The authors make an important point. At GuideStar we have long recognized that charitable giving is usually motivated by personal priorities and values. Donors give to organizations that address issues that are important to them and look for organizations that are acting programmatically in ways that make sense them. This has several implications. One, we have to be careful in making judgments about what is a “good” organization. Some donors may want to support cutting-edge organizations doing challenging work while struggling financially, while others are attracted to organizations with proven business models and a successful track record. Metrics such as overhead ratios are meaningless and often harmful. The organization with a bad overhead ratio may be in fact be the one doing the best work according to our values. Second, the most successful donation is one where the giver and the organization both benefit. But I don’t think it is always a necessary requirement. Sometimes a spontaneous gift without any expectation of benefit is exactly the right thing to do. In the ideal, however, compatibility on priorities and values between the donor and recipient can result in both a better appreciation of the organization’s challenges and a deeper understanding of what matters to the donor in terms of how he/she can best help the organization (time, money, expertise). Finally, at GuideStar we are seeing an increasing number of donors who have made personal commitments to tackle a serious problem and are looking for nonprofits to be a partner in addressing these problems. It is a fulfillment of their life’s plan for themselves. This means they want organizations that are competent and effective and can demonstrate progress. The individual is on a mission, fulfilled through their work with the nonprofit. They are as the authors say, “invested in their gift.”
    Bob Ottenhoff
    President, GuideStar

  27. So much to appreciate in this string of comments. The very first one demonstrates the power of this blog:

    From Craig of “What motivates me to give? A good question and one that I’ve never really articulated, but when I think about it…”

    Thank you, Sean.

    Ok, That’s enough navel-gazing 🙂 Back to the topic at hand…

  28. Thanks Christine. I like this blog for the same reason; it get me to think about questions I’ve never considered! Thanks so all for raising so many good points.

  29. Wow! Got off a plane after midnight to discover this fascinating conversation. Thanx to Sean for launching it. Hope to get back with substantive comment after some coffee and having to get to some meetings—either tonight or tomorrow.

  30. Jeffrey, thanks to you for co-authoring the book that led to all this. We’d love to have you address some of the issues raised. Personally, I’d be particularly interested in your reaction to comment #2 from Jeff Mason. I think Jeff’s goals can be reconciled with your thinking, but I’d love to hear how you might respond to Jeff’s critique.

  31. David Lynn says:

    I give because I hate waste. An effective non-profit is a far better use of my time and money than government programs. And a non-profit with a high volunteer ratio is huge leverage on my dollars. Philanthropy is the only place I can get that kind of leverage and feel good at the end of the day.

  32. Great discussion here. I think I (and almost everyone else) give for two reasons: personal and social ROI (a great semantic framing I got from Eric Foley). You give for 1.) how it makes you feel about something you care about, and 2.) you give to make a difference. It might be to make a difference in an empirical way with respect to an organization OR to make a difference in a social relationship (like when a friend asks you to support her cause). Almost everything comes back to these two things.

    A while back (3 years ago!), I blogged my own list – FYI here it is. I don’t think it’s changed much.

    Reasons I give:

    a. Someone I know asked me to give

    b. I felt emotionally moved by someone’s story

    c. I want to feel I’m not powerless in the face of need and can help (this is especially true during disasters)

    d. I want to feel I’m changing someone’s life

    e. I feel a sense of closeness to a community or group

    f. I need a tax deduction

    g. I want to memorialize someone (who is struggling or died of a disease, for example)

    h. I was raised to give to charity – it’s tradition in my family

    i. I want to be “hip” and supporting this charity (ie, wearing a yellow wrist band) is in style

    j. It makes me feel connected to other people and builds my social network

    k. I want to have a good image for myself/my company

    l. I want to leave a legacy that perpetuates me, my ideals or my cause

    m. I feel fortunate (or guilty) and want to give something back to others

    n. I give for religious reasons – God wants me to share my affluence

    o. I want to be seen as a leader/role model

  33. I give out of a profound sense of gratitude, a strong desire to empower others to be the best that they can be, and a belief that social progress is achieved by investing in leaders who are most likely to push the margins of excellence in our society’s quality of life. I believe–because I see it every day in the work we do at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation–that philanthropy is one of the best vehicles for fulfilling humans’ needs to give back, support each other, and be part of something bigger than themselves. At the Foundation we have witnessed hundreds of donors’ lives being enriched through every level of charitable giving, whether a contribution is $25 or $25 million. I have enjoyed reading this conversation and I appreciate Sean’s work and dedication to his blog. It is critical to affirm and reinforce the important role that philanthropy–2.2 percent of the country’s GDP–plays in our culture. Conversations like this strengthen that role.

  34. Sean,

    Glad to see there is such interest in this post and very timely. The Metro NY Philanthropic Advisors Network is delighted to be hosting Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon to discuss this very topic in more depth on Monday, November 16th at 12:00-2:00PM.

    If you are in the area, or anyone interested in attending, you can find out more and register on the group website at

    Look forward to an interesting discussion!
    Richard Krasney, NYPAN Co-Founder

  35. This is a great conversation, thanks to Sean for kicking it off, to Charles and Jeffrey for the post and the book, and to everyone for contributing many thoughtful comments.

    I especially like the holistic approach that the authors are advocating – at Philanthropedia, we similarly think about philanthropy as a system that includes not just nonprofits and the value that they create, but also experts and donors. To put it differently, developing a capability to better understand and serve donors should be (and for many great organizations is) an essential part of any nonprofit’s key activities.

  36. Ken Berger says:

    This sounds like an interesting book and I do intend to get a copy, but the authors make some surprising statements here that I question. The first is the following:
    “As philanthropists/donors/funders, we spend so much time thinking about how to maximize social benefit through our activities that often we lost sight of the personal benefit that we experience from these endeavors.”

    You guys really believe that most philanthropists/donors/funders “spend so much time” on social benefit questions? I think there is far more focus on “personal benefit” or the counting of activities than there is on considering meaningful social benefit for the vast majority of funders (etc.) out there. My advice to Solomon and Bronfman is to beware of assuming that what you consider important is the norm!

    Moving on the core issue of “giving”, I hope some day that the very term gives
    (no pun intended) way to “investing”. Along the lines of what Dr. Hunter describes in his recent article: “The End of Charity”, charitable giving has associated with it the idea of uncritical and emotionally based decisions on supporting a nonprofit, rather than seeking out objective data that shows evidence of meaningful change. So when Solomon and Bronfman describe all the motivations for giving as “perfectly valid” and that understanding WHY you give will likely cause you to be more invested in your gift, I suggest that the reasons are not at all equal. Ego and self-worth motivations are not as “valid” as desiring to enhance and improve the lives of others. Social status motivations are not as valid as seeking social value. Furthermore, awareness of ones ego and social status concerns are not likely to deepen ones commitment to anything other than oneself
    (unless the person finally becomes aware of how shallow and superficial they are!).

    As the authors note, it is certainly true that these motivations can lead to “drastically different “approaches to “doing philanthropy”, but some are drastically more valuable and significant than others. Nonetheless, if an egotistical and status conscious donor (etc.) ends up consistently and substantially supporting high performing nonprofits, even though I think their reason for doing it stinks, more power to them!

  37. Laura Deaton says:

    After reading Ken’s post, I felt compelled to come back to this discussion one more time. “Giving” doesn’t have to be either ego-based and “shallow and “superficial” or “investing.” As so many people have already shared in this thread, there are many other motivators, many of which are just as “valid” as investing.

    Those that make extra meals and GIVE them to the homeless folks in the park or those who GIVE by working at the soup kitchen that doesn’t measure outcomes aren’t motivated by ego. Likewise, those who GIVE a dollar to a panhandler or GIVE a memorial gift or who GIVE to their church or place of spiritual sustenance without looking at outcomes aren’t superficial or shallow. There are many ways to GIVE that simply cannot and will not be replaced by the word “investing.”

    I also think it’s misguided and could be easily be misinterpreted as sector “elitism” to say that some motivations are less “valid” than others. Some “givers” are motivated by investing, and others may not be. That doesn’t make their giving or their desire to give any less “valid.” That kind of message of “philanthropic” class-ism is precisely why the social investment movement has such a difficult time getting its message across positively. When visible leaders in philanthropy spend time criticizing segments of donors or segments of nonprofits instead of guiding, teaching and mentoring them, it feels petty and negative, and will eventually sour the very community and services that we are trying to improve.

    Not what I’m doing to lift this sector up, that’s for sure.

  38. Ken Berger says:

    Ms. Deaton’s response to my comment is off the mark. I was in no way equating egotists with people on the front line of service to the poorest of the poor!

    I certainly agree that there is a place in the human service continuum for programs such as soup kitchens. However, some of her examples reflect the tired old model of enabling and dependency, potentially doing more harm than good, that much of the sector has yet to grapple with.

    Some programs will never provide outcomes but appropriately focus on outputs. However it is still quite appropriate to define the “giving” as investing in a social benefit – to feed the hungry. Nonetheless, the soup kitchen that links a client to other services that could help them beyond immediate nourishment have the potential to provide outcomes – where meaningful and lasting change may occur in people’s lives. Is that not better than the “three hots and a cot” approach?

    Finally, if it is elitist to make a judgement as to egotistical and status driven giving, I stand by that elitism with pride!

  39. I’ve been struggling with how to respond to this post for a couple of days now. Part of it has to do with a certain discomfort with the framing of the question, which Holden Karnofsky at GiveWell has encapsulated nicely over at the GiveWell blog. Another reason is no doubt that, having grown up in a family of modest means and worked in the nonprofit sector for my entire post-college career thus far, I’m not especially familiar with the “personal reward through the act of giving.” In fact, I’ve personally been the recipient/beneficiary of far more philanthropy than I have provided, through very generous financial aid packages in high school and college and a half-tuition merit scholarship for my graduate education.

    However, there is one way in which I have provided a significant “gift” to society, and that is by forgoing perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earning potential with my intention to work either in or closely aligned with the nonprofit sector for my entire career. Having recently spent two years in business school, with its inviting recruiting tracks into investment banking, strategy consulting, and leadership development programs at CPG mega-conglomerates and insurance companies, I’ve had occasion to reflect a lot on why this might be.

    To be sure, there’s a strong moral dimension to my decision: having experienced firsthand how much of a difference in a person’s life the thwarting of free markets can have, I’m eager to play my own role in advancing such work. But there’s something else, too, something perhaps not altogether selfless. And that is that working on behalf of changing the world is interesting. When I think about some my classmates who are heading off to earn six-figure salaries at The Hartford or Pepsi or UBS, in all honesty, a part of me feels sorry for them. Sorry that they don’t have anything else to live for besides the paycheck and the parties. It may cost me a pretty penny, but at least I can be confident that whatever else happens, I’ll always know that my work, the thing that I spend most of each day of most of each week of most of each year doing, is intimately aligned with who I am as a person and what I want to achieve with my life.

  40. Ken…I am pleased to see the defense of your position. Investing in the future of each individual, organization and community is of critical importance to the future well being of all we care for. As a doctoral student, looking to research the impact and measurable outcomes of philanthropy in the world of higher education, I am beginning to realize, just how an elusive a “beast” this might be. Keep pushing to find these answers and I hope to be able to contribute much to the ensuing conversations and knowledge in the field. Higher education must be better able to demonstrate its effective use of the billions of dollars given each year to colleges and universities, or I fear donors may begin to invest their funds elsewhere. Fundraisers are trained at Harvard on how to respond to “You already have more money then you need, why should I give to you?”
    Maybe not all donors are asking the questions and expect answers, but for those that do, we would be wise to have the answers.

  41. Rich B says:


    A very timely post as I have been working with several large groups in China on this very issue.

    For me, I give because I am good at it, and knowing that I have the capacity to help organizations help others is a passion that I work hard to pass on.

    .. and any quick wins (or quasi-celebratory moments) are quickly tempered by the fact that I know how much more work still needs to be done.


  42. Carla Javits says:

    Many provocative and inspiring comments that resonate with my own reasons for working in this sector, and also for giving. A thorny relative of “why we give” comes to mind. Why and to what extent do we/do we not want to ‘give’ our tax dollars to our democractically elected government to pool and spend so as to advance (as it would, could, should be) the common good. Do we view the giving to/through philanthropy, and ‘giving’ to/through government as trade-offs in some sense (with the obvious reality that tax policy makes them trade-offs in at least one sense).