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Personal philanthropy should reflect the donor’s passions

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Special to Philanthropy Journal

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By Milton Rhodes

I have spent a great portion of my life matching donors’ wishes with the needs of 501 (c)(3) organizations, and there is one thing I know: Generally speaking, people give to charities for which they have feelings and passion, and in my opinion, that is a good thing. 

I am a pragmatist, and as former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford once said, “I don’t believe in trotting my horse to hear the harness rattle.” That is exactly what you are doing if you ask a potential donor who eats, sleeps and breathes Little League Baseball to make a major gift for a new symphony hall – unless, by chance, he or she has a child studying violin at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. But that same person may gladly give a million bucks for a new ball field for the kids or even research on juvenile sports injuries. 

Most often, people give because people ask them to give. Personal whims and preferences of donors – and even family traditions – do determine where dollars flow, of course. Several years ago, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation pointed out in an annual report devoted to various facets of philanthropy that often, several generations of a family might be the mainstay for a particular charity. Why should we expect anything else? They heard about Senior Services or the Children’s Chorus night after night at the supper table. Wise fundraisers do their homework and craft a package that will strike a chord with potential donors.

Determining the greatest need and which charity makes the greatest impact is subjective. I support a multitude of social service organizations through my annual United Way contribution. I appreciate the needs they address, and I do my part, my fair share. I also view my community holistically and understand that the arts enrich our lives every day, enhance our children’s education, create jobs, generate tax revenue to fund essential services and help corporations and businesses attract and retain the creative employees needed for a 21st century knowledge-based economy.

Regardless of how people give, it is important that they give wisely. And these days, people increasingly are doing so. In this economy, dollars are precious, and charitable dollars, in fact, are investments. For years, we have stressed credibility, accountability, sustainability and transparency as key tenets of the fundraising of our funded partners. We set the example at the Arts Council by doing systematic long-range planning and then requiring our grantees to have three-year plans, reviewed by an impartial group of some 15 financially savvy volunteers. 

I agree that rigid formulas of fundraising administrative costs versus grants are not the best tests of effectiveness and efficiency. For example, the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, like many others, does far more than raise money and make grants. We own and operate arts centers, theatres and parking lots. We sponsor performances and special events. We make public announcements of all our grants, post them online and publish them in our annual reports. We encourage donors to look closely at what we do and how we do it – with grant recipients, at grant panels which we list by name and at our processes. And we get hard questions, which we welcome, from potential donors. 

Honestly, I am a little weary of broad assertions that things are broken and need to be fixed. I do not hold that, because something is not working the way I want it to, it is broken. Philanthropy is not broken. It is working well. More than $300 billion dollars are given to charity each year in this country. Religion is the largest recipient, followed by education, then the environment and the arts.

Like everything else, philanthropy could work better. However, it is folly to disparage “donor-driven” philanthropy and contend that, when donors have accumulated the kind of wealth that allows them to make substantial contributions to charities, someone else has the right to tell them how to do it – regardless of the donors’ personal preferences.

Who defines “needs”? At this point, it is interesting to note that studies over the last many years have showed that people on the lower end of the economic scale give a greater percentage of their income to charities than those on the higher end. Their feelings and passions count, also.

You and I can judge, using whatever arbitrary standard we individually choose, the acts of others – here, charitable contributions – and withhold praise when it suits us. That is our privilege. But the notion of creating a hierarchy of “goodness” and ignoring the contributions of those who do not share our values defines reason. Because the “whims and preferences” of others do not conform to ours does not mean we are right and they are wrong. Will St. Peter stand at the Pearly Gates and separate those who contributed to the arts from those who contributed to feeding of the poor? I think not.


Milton Rhodes is the president and CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, the first locally established arts council in the United States. He is retiring at the end of September after leading the organization since 2004.

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