Shifting Philanthropic Paradigms

By: James Langley

As you firm up your resolutions for the new year, please consider this one: To challenge assumptions of the past, no matter how entrenched, that have caused you to work harder than you needed to or to have produced much less than you could have.

If fundraising is part or all of your responsibility, chances are you have labored under one such assumption for too long – that the best way to secure philanthropic support is by asking for money. It isn’t.

Philanthropists don’t wake up in the morning asking themselves, “How can I give away more money?” Instead, they ask, “How can I make a greater difference where I believe a difference most needs to be made?” They care about societal need, not institutional need. In fact, the more an institution cries poor, the more likely it is to be seen as a beggar, or an object of pity. The more it demonstrates the ability to contribute to society, the more it becomes an object of admiration – and the more likely it is to be seen as worthy of significant philanthropic investment.

Philanthropy is not a form of alms for needy institutions. It is not even a reward system for what an institution has done; it is an investment in what it might do.

How did Harvard command $350 million from one donor, the largest gift in higher education history? Not by pleading need. That’s hard to do when you’re sitting on a $40 billion endowment. Harvard demonstrated agency – how someone could give through the university to achieve a global impact. In this case they proposed how they could help anticipate, remediate and strive to obviate:

  • Pandemics ranging from malaria and Ebola to obesity and cancer
  • Environmental health risks, including pollution, guns, and tobacco
  • Poverty and humanitarian crises, including war and natural disasters
  • Failing health systems

The way you raise $350 million, or any significant amount, is to show how you might convert that sum of money into significant, lasting societal gain. And, if you get that amount of money, you work like hell to live up to your promise, both because it is the right thing to do and because it gives your institution the might to make a more compelling case for how you could convert another $350 million or more into even greater societal return.

A truly effective case for support doesn’t require you to ask for money. It is a compelling calling card that gets you past the gatekeepers and directly in front of the most discerning and conscientious philanthropists. It does not say anything about you need; it says, “If you care about this issue, let us show you why and how you should invest in us.”

Too many institutions have turned too frequently to their constituents to give for the sake of giving or for broad institutional support. In our feasibility studies, we’re hearing more and more loyal donors say, “I’m not interested in any more rhetoric. Show me a business plan. Show me where and how I can have an impact.”

The case that the present and future calls for with greater urgency is the clear, convincing articulation of:

  • A greater societal issue or opportunity to be addressed
  • An institution’s unique competencies to address it
  • A prospectus depicting how it will be addressed and how success will be measured, year over year
  • A business plan, including current financials, and a budget detailing how incremental investment can be used to leverage current resources, and how the effort can be sustained through total resource development including the identification, development and monetization of intellectual property
  • A project management plan demonstrating how the project will unfold, who will be responsibility for which tasks, and when milestones of achievement can be reached.

It’s a new year and a new day and this will be the more certain way to institutional relevance and distinction. It’s the beginning of the end for fundraising and the beginning of new era of philanthropic productivity.

Resolve to put your time, talents and institutional treasure to better use this year. Enjoy greater rewards and higher returns. We stand by to help.


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