Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Breaking up is hard to do

By Todd Cohen

Charitable development is a tough tango.

Making it work, whether one is a donor or a charity, takes time, patience, a good ear, an open mind and a knack for knowing when to bend, when to stand your ground and when to walk away.

This year, several donors nixed big gifts because charities they had targeted balked at strings the donors wanted to attach.

That’s a shame because, in failing to create philanthropy, donors and charities hurt themselves as well as the causes they care about.

Donors and charities can improve their odds for success if they treat philanthropy as a market transaction requiring complex and sensitive choreography.

Charitable development unfolds in a marketplace in which donors and charities make deals to exchange charitable assets, influence and credit.

Donors dole out dollars in return for tax breaks and, unless the donors are anonymous, some form of recognition from the charities they support.

That recognition can range from a letter of thanks or the right to name a building or program to a voice in the charitable programs the donors support.

Negotiating that exchange of charitable supply and demand is a delicate job – one that requires big changes in the way charities and donors alike traditionally have handled development.

Charities typically raise money by assessing their needs and asking donors to make gifts addressing those needs.

And donors typically make gifts by calculating tax breaks they need and making gifts geared to secure those breaks and also benefit charities they favor.

By focusing on one another’s needs instead of their own, donors and charities can create philanthropy that expands the combined contributions of its partners.

Charities can help donors define their philanthropic values, find charitable programs they care about and create gifts that express their values through support of – and involvement in – those programs.

And donors can help charities assess the challenges they face, identify their organizational and program needs, and create gifts that integrate the donor’s wealth and know-how into strengthening and improving the charity’s work.

If the donor or charity asks too much, cannot accept the other’s demands or is unwilling to find common ground, the gift probably will not work and should be shelved.

Philanthropy is a partnership that plays out on many levels and must be organic and ongoing, recognizing that value is relative and reflects a shared sense of what the donor and charity each wants, needs and is prepared to offer.

By working together to create philanthropy that reflects and matches their respective values, needs and resources, and that taps and feeds the resources of the communities they serve, donors and charities can most effectively address the big challenges we face.

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