“Why people give” is less the question than whether people impact the cause directly or indirectly

While we’ve been hacking through the Engagement underbrush in the last half month’s series of posts, the rest of the philanthroblogger world has been grappling anew with the questions of social impact and personal impact as giving motivators (the four posts here, here, here, and our favorite post here from Katya Andresen ought to get you nicely up to speed, as will Bronfman and Solomon’s new book,  The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan, which is being nicely profiled on Sean Stannard Stockton’s blog).

In short, the question under discussion is this:

  • Which is the greater spur to philanthropy–personal feelings or the desire for outcome-based impact–and what if anything can and should be done to change that?

The disdain on the part of many bloggers for personal feelings as the trigger for giving is not hard to detect, which leads to a fascinating follow-up question:

  • Do donors rely on personal feelings because they lack outcome-based impact data, and would (and should) they become more oriented to outcome-based motivations for giving if such data were available?

Katya Andresen and I are working on reframing the debate as necessarily a both/and rather than an either/or, in the form of an “impact index” that contends that asks that chart high on both axes, social impact and personal impact, are (and should be) preferred to asks that chart high on one or the other. Perhaps I am foolishly optimistic, but I take that to be such a straightforward and simple proposition that I think we’ll be able to carry the day once the terminology dust settles.

But that’s only one side of the coin.

The other–and, in my view, much more intriguing–side of the coin isn’t related to giving motivation at all. This second coin side is all about the role of the individual and the nonprofit in relation to the cause, and here the issues aren’t terminological at all.

The question at issue on this reverse side of the coin:

  • How can individuals make the greatest impact on a cause–by being trained to impact the cause directly, with the nonprofit serving as impact platform/convening mechanism, or by impacting the cause indirectly, giving money to the nonprofits judged by experts as the most effective in making a difference?

My suspicion is that most of the people involved in the personal versus social impact debate will find this question preposterous and even spurious. The consensus of our age (among charitable foundations and nonprofit execs, anyway) is that nonprofits impact causes and donors support nonprofits. The only question being discussed is whether, in the end, donors are flibbertigibbets or hard-nosed impact calculators who will vote responsibly for the best nonprofits with their giving dollars.

Such a view is hardly flattering to individuals. And it’s far too kind to nonprofits.

As I’ve noted previously, we live in a day when a multitude of examples exist of individuals and informal networks of amateurs beating the pants off of big, credible nonprofit organizations when it comes to making a deep, direct, lasting, measurable, critically important impact on the cause. The phenomenon has reached the mainstream so much so that even FEMA has to acknowledge it:

The critical role of local organizations and their ability to reach community members in need cannot be ignored. While these small nonprofits and faith-based organizations do not have the resources for national public service announcements and billion dollar fundraising campaigns, they need access to some of the donated dollars that flow into the coffers of larger organizations able to broadcast commercials across the country. FEMA might consider exploring ways that donated dollars can be split proportionally or that even a small percentage (5-10%) can be used to support the important work of local organizations.

Distributed computing–“in which anyone with an Internet connection can participate and in which results benefit everyone”–is such a well established phenomenon in the technology fields that it’s simultaneously surprising and disappointing that the concept of distributed causing–in which individuals join causes rather than just giving to them (as “donors”)–is little discussed in philanthropic circles.

As Angela Eikenberry points out in her must-read book, Giving Circles, nonprofits have become exponentially more formal in their efforts to tackle causes in a matter of but a few generations; consequently, they are more and more exclusive, less and less participatory…and less and less democratic. They no longer even feel to need to justify their causal elitism; causes and cures are, you know, so complicated that the heavy lifting is so obviously better left to the professionals that the role of so-called “donors” is whittled down to little more than reading newsletters, embracing new tools (created by the nonprofit sector itself, of course) to better judge which nonprofit does the best and most efficientwork..and then writing a check.

Eikenberry’s killer observation is this:

  • Voluntarism is now viewed less as a duty of the citizen…and more as a “privilege granted by philanthropic agencies to those who accepted their discipline.”

Ouch, do we need to hear that. Let the games continue.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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8 Responses to “Why people give” is less the question than whether people impact the cause directly or indirectly

  1. Katya says:

    Great post, Eric. I especially agree that:

    1.) Giving usually derives from some MIXTURE of the personal and the broader impact (the desire to make a difference). To try to extract the personal from the act of giving is fruitless – we are human beings with interests, after all – but also likely takes away an essential component of the act of giving and the field of philanthropy – emotional investment.

    2.) The idea that donors should only give to “effective nonprofits” might have worked in an older world order where there WAS order, but in today’s decentralized, distributed, democratized disorder of philanthropy, that’s a big challenge – which makes giving to what you know – personally – seem more appealing.

  2. EFoley says:

    Right on, Katya. I can’t imagine that the institution-centric attitudes of our sector can hold up much longer in this distributed age.

  3. Matt Bates says:

    To borrow your phrase, it’s necessary but insufficient to equate “personal impact” with “how I feel about giving”. The great big missing piece that is never measured or otherwise figured into the calculation is the change in the person doing the giving. Missing among Katya’s 15 reasons for giving was that she gives because she believes, at some fundamental level, she needs to change. It’s unlikely any nonprofit has ever suggested she needs to change, because they’ve been fumbling all over themselves convincing her she was the solution, as she has money to give.

    The professionalization of service-provision is based on the assumption of “haves” giving to “have nots”, and it’s a natural progression for the “haves” to divide themselves into the givers and the doers. It’s more efficient this way, and more stuff is delivered to the “have nots” this way.

    A nice example of a nonprofit that’s largely rejected these categories is Habitat for Humanity, which starts by placing everybody– haves, have nots, doers, givers– on the same home-building team. It would be much more efficient, if the goal were houses, to professionalize the process, raise a bunch of money from the givers, hand it over to the professional builders, then deliver the house to the have nots. Imagine how inefficient it is to build houses with people who’ve never held a hammer.

    But HfH has broader goals in mind. They are breaking down socio-economic barriers, gathering communities together to address common needs, building confidence that ordinary people gathered for a common purpose can be the solution to the problems they collectively face. They intend to change the participants, exploding false categories that suggest that some people are solutions and others are problems, that only some are needy.

  4. EFoley says:

    Double right on, Batesy. No surprise that HfH is always among the fastest growing charities, eh? At some level, champions must be tired of being VASTLY underestimated by charities. A revolt fomenteth…

  5. Bob Ballard says:

    Great post and comments! I am reminded of an old business saying “To be successful, find out what people want and give it to them.”

    People want to help, to make a difference. All we have to do is find a way for them to do that. The feeling of making a difference comes from having a real experience of doing it. For most people, that means being immersed in it, not just sending a donation.

    If we in the social-profit world can find a way to directly include people in the difference-making experience, we will be extremely successful. I am going to work on that right now – it is a very exciting and empowering concept.

    • EFoley says:

      And here are my follow-up thought after taking a look at your website, Bob:

      On your site, you write that your nonprofit’s purpose is, “Standing for the greatness of homeless people and the huge contribution they hold for the world; Generating a new and radical interpretation of who they are: the vanguard of a new culture based on the dignity and inherent value of human beings people who have voluntarily or involuntary stepped outside of our consumer culture; Building a platform that empowers homeless people to show the world who they are; Providing connection, love and acceptance”. Good on ya! There are few causes that are closer to my heart, quite frankly.

      And my thought is that nonprofits that treat their “clients” as subjects of potential rather than as objects of pity are far more likely (or at least far better positioned) to regard givers/champions the same way.

      Which is to say: You go, bro!

      • Bob Ballard says:

        Thank you Eric!

        What I now see are new ways to empower people to empower homeless people. We have been empowering homeless people but we have not been directly empowering people to make a direct difference with homeless people.

        I am now at working generating ways for people to do just that. Some of these ideas I already envisioned but I did not see how important it is to directly involve people in making a difference. Now I do.

        Thank you, I am grateful.

  6. Pingback: Why Give « Digitally Enhanced

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