Who holds donors accountable for their giving?

A fun New York Times piece by Susan Dominus on The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy raises a killer question that virtually never gets talk about in our line of work, namely:

Who holds donors accountable for their giving?

The article itself makes no pretense toward profundity as it recounts the tale of New York author Courtney Martin, who, finding herself in possession of a six-figure book advance, purposed to give some of it away through nine friends. She gave each one $100 to use in whatever charitable manner each saw fit, with but one fascinating caveat:

In a month she would hold a party at which each individual would be required to share what they did with the money.

And with that, the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy was born.

The philanthropic impact of the Society may not exceed its novelty–the article to detail how ten of this year’s Society members spent the $100 they each received, and the Gates Foundation this is not–but Susan Dominus’ article exceeds the philanthropic impact of the Society. Ask Dominus:

What if every philanthropist had to get up in front of some party of their peers and riff about how they had spent their money? All kudos to Bill Gates, but how might he surprise the world with an infinitesimal portion of his foundation dollars if he had his monologue at a Secret Society gala in mind?

Or what if every average Joe just made a pact with his five best friends that they would get together once a year and share how they donated their money? To start, they’d surely get around to actually donating that money: and yes, accountability is as much the point for Ms. Martin as celebration.

What if instead of donor appreciation events we held donor accountability events where our donors had to share with the other donors at their table how over the past year they spent their money and their time and their passion on the shared cause that captivates you all, and what they purpose to do in the year to come, and how much more they might be able to do if they worked more closely together and drew others into the circle?

“No one would come to such an event” might be our offhand response. But what does that say about us and our organizations and how we relate to those who share our passion and calling to the cause that captivates us?

And if not in our nonprofits, where are donors held to account for how–and how much–they gave?

For the most part it does not happen in churches, who tend to think about congregational giving as a whole (and its relation to the church’s budget need) rather than by individuals (and the relationship of their giving to any kind of standard other than what is construed as an absolute and inviolable right to privacy).

“But my donors (or congregation members) would kill me if I held them accountable for their giving!” we might protest. “I mean, who am I to hold them accountable?”

Yes–who are we indeed? And as coaches and advocates for crucial causes, do we have a responsibility or an aspiration to be anything more than the world’s most skillful asking and appreciating machines? And if we don’t, does anybody?

So what is the easiest way to begin the accountability process?

Sit with willing donors (or congregation members) at the start of the year and talk about their giving goals. Ask them questions about how they decide how much to give, and to what, and when. Ask them how they would rate the effectiveness of their giving from the previous year and what they would like to see become more effective in their giving for the coming year. Ask them if they feel there are causes that are overrepresented or underrepresented in their giving and how they come to that conclusion. Ask them what one single change they could make in their giving this coming year in order to have the largest possible increase in effectiveness over last year.

And so on.

Most of these questions will initially draw shoulder shrugs and sheepish smiles. They will readily confess that they haven’t thought of these questions–which gives you the ideal opportunity to enter into a mutual accountability relationship where you share your own answers to these questions and help them develop their own.

All of which puts you in a different relationship to your donors/congregation members than unconditional admirer. This then makes it not only possible but necessary for you to hold that donor accountability gathering at the end of the year so that those you have coached can gather together to share their struggles and successes, personal transformations and goals, with each other.

Accountability, they call it. And if it happens with starving artists and struggling writers in New York City, why not with those donors and congregation members within your sphere of influence?

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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1 Response to Who holds donors accountable for their giving?

  1. I agree to participate. Pastor Kent and I are already planning our first gathering…this also coaches the christian to become mature in the command, “let your yes be yes and your no, no”

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