Philanthropy: Spending Vs. Investing

One of the big shifts that is occurring in philanthropy is a change in the way donors perceive how charitable giving fits into their overall financial picture. The most fundamental aspect of this shift is a movement from seeing giving as a “spending category” to seeing it as an “investment category”. There are a number of implications:

  1. When donors view giving as an investment category, they view it as a positive aspect of their financial picture rather than a negative cost. For example, if the cost of your grocery shopping goes up, it negatively impacts your budget. But if the amount you are saving goes up, this is a positive change to your financial picture.
  2. Donors can begin thinking about giving as a percentage of their assets rather than a percentage of their income. Wealthy donors in particular have far more assets than income and so thinking about giving as a percentage of assets would dramatically increase giving. This is the argument put forth by investment manager and philanthropists Claude Rosenberg in Wealthy & Wise. The book demonstrates mathematically that donors can give far more to charity without jeopardizing their financial well being if they think about giving as a percentage of assets.
  3. Donors can begin thinking about nonprofits as organizations they want to support rather than “sellers” of “goods” whose costs they do not want to support. When you buy something from Target, you don’t care about their operating costs, you just want the lowest price. But when you invest in Target you recognize that quality organizations take money to run and you are supportive of well spent operational costs.
  4. The value that donors expect shifts from a short term perspective (such as “buying” the right to feel like you helped someone) to a long term perspective (such as “investing” in the continued success of a high impact nonprofit).
  5. Nonprofits stop seeing donors are “customers” who they must separate from their cash (or even fight a war over) and start seeing them as investors; literally stakeholders of the organization.
  6. Corporate donors also see a shift where “corporate social responsibility” moves from being a cost that they attempt to reduce to an investment in the community from which they derive their profits.
  7. More mission related investment opportunities open up as people become comfortable with blended investments that offer financial and social returns.
  8. The field of philanthropy becomes more focused on building a philanthropic market place as the importance of functioning financial markets becomes more clear.
  9. Wealth managers begin serving the philanthropic needs of their clients as they begin to recognize that giving is not a cost for their client (that should be minimized) but is instead an asset allocation question that is directly intertwined with their clients’ broader wealth management needs.


  1. I have sensed this shift in my work in both corporate social responsibility and online fundraising. I think that this shift is partially a generational one. In CSR, I see this as an investment that companies make in improving their communities while attracting Generation Y. In online fundraising, I see this as a move towards greater involvement for the donor/investor and a greater need for transparency and reporting by the beneficiary organization. Thank you for this excellent article.

  2. It is an interesting question of whether this is a generational shift or whether this is a paradigm shift. In other words is the shift I’m describing something that the younger generation embraces because they are younger or is this a shift in thinking that is sweeping across all people.

    I happen to think it is a paradigm shift, but like many paradigm shifts, young people are more quick to embrace the changes because they have less history with the old paradigm.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Leslie.