Philanthropy arms race takes toll

By Todd Cohen

Philanthropy has become a quagmire.

Instead of engaging donors to shape gifts that apply their values to urgent and long-term needs, charities treat donors as pawns in an escalating war over bragging rights.

Development offices troll for small gifts through wholesale appeals to their donor bases.

United Ways fear failure if they do not bring in more money every year.

And colleges and universities are locked in never-ending campaigns, with the biggest schools pushing for ever-higher goals.

Fourteen years after Stanford University completed the first-ever $1 billion drive, 22 universities are seeking $1 billion or more, with Columbia targeting $4 billion.

But as they pump up their goals, are charities chasing the right dollars?

Do development strategies truly reflect organizational needs, preparedness for fundraising, and donors’ values and capacity to give?

Or does pressure from boards, CEOs, constituents and the media push charities to set goals and take on fundraising drives that are plain wrong for them and their donors?

By knowing themselves and their donors, setting realistic goals and developing smart resources, charities can focus on their mission, serve their constituents and slow philanthropy’s ego-driven arms race.

Philanthropy does not have to always be bigger to do good.

Todd Cohen is the Editor and Publisher of the Philanthropy Journal.

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