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Guest column – Philanthropy takes teamwork

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By David M. Zemel

My initial reaction to “Teamwork fits charities needs” in the Philanthropy Journal (Dec. 24, 2002) was visceral and a little defensive. With 30 years of fundraising and grantmaking experience, the notion that donors are responsible for “philanthropy’s fog” strikes me as naďve.

Todd Cohen says in that column that “philanthropy is not fair” and he is exactly right. What is?

He says people who control wealth can “…do what they like with it” and he’s partially correct. And his statement that “charities are owed nothing” is also right.

So what’s the problem?

Good intentions are not enough. Most donors, even those who confuse having money with being smart, come to philanthropy as rookies. They learn much of what they know about nonprofits from nonprofits and here’s what they’ve been taught:

* Our cause is just. We deserve funding more than any one else because we’re different.

* Our project is important. We don’t have time to learn about the donor, what they do, where their money comes from or to answer questions. Besides, those forms are busy work.

* Research-and-development is a for-profit concept. You can’t quantify human needs, art, health, education and the like. 

* Cost-effectiveness isn’t about people. If $30,000 fixes a $3,000 problem, it’s worth it.

* It doesn’t matter if the proposed methodology has failed in other settings; we’re different.

* It doesn’t matter that there are already two, six or 10 community organizations working in the same field, with the same clients and with similar programs. We’re different.

* We know what works. Evaluation is something funders want to justify their own programs.

* Our project would be more successful if only someone would just give us enough money.

* People should give us their money. Why do they expect to be thanked?

It’s true that some donors gain great influence over nonprofits only because the donors picked the right employer, parents or spouse.

It’s also true that many nonprofits are managed by people who picked their profession because statistics wasn’t a required course for graduation.

These donors and nonprofit managers are driven by altru­ism and, sadly, they believe that is enough.

To maximize the resources with which we’ve been entrusted and the impact of our services to the com­munity, we have to do more than “mean well.”

We have to “do well.” This is true if our job is making grants or planning and running programs.

In 2001, private philanthropy totaled more than $212 billion. Government funding probably provided about twice that much to our communities.

We need to remember that these donors want and, in some cases, are required to give money away.

To do that well, they need good applicants with successful programs.

Neither group thrives without the other or gets better without helping its partner do the same.

If there’s a fog in philanthropy, maybe we’re all responsible?


David M. Zemel is senior program officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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