Resiliency and Leadership: Why Do We Do What We Do?

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By James Greenfield, ACFRE, FAHP, FAFP, and Dennis Stefanacci, ACFRE, FAFP

The Role of the Senior Fundraiser in Advancing the Philosophy of Philanthropy

Bob Payton, instrumental in creating the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, often discussed his concern that the training of fundraising executives focused more on the “how to’s” of practice rather than its “whys.” He believed this approach to education and training further exacerbated the longstanding tension between purpose and methods in philanthropic practice. Witness today’s emphasis on major gifts as a main source of revenue.

Most American nonprofit organizations look at fundraising only as a revenue source. But it is also the most active connection between the community and the services the nonprofit provides. In addition, messages from the organization too often are about what they need or want, not how their programs and services are providing what community residents need.

Today, more than ever, the role of senior fundraising professional must address several ongoing challenges—made more paramount because of the immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its projected long-term implications. They must address how to advance philanthropy and champion its critical role in rebuilding their organization and their communities.

If we learned nothing else from the pandemic, it is that life is fragile and things that were less important can become more immediate—whether for an individual or an organization. Now is a unique opportunity to focus on the “whys” of what we do as a profession. All nonprofits are facing changing institutional needs, far more than compensating for lost revenue. Now also is an ideal time for senior fundraising executives to explore their leadership role and personal responsibility for advancing basic philanthropic purposes.

In an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Jamie Merisotis articulates that “Philanthropy at its heart is about fundamental change. Philanthropy is focused not on symptoms, but on root causes. It is systemic, not episodic; active rather than reactive. In short, the goal of philanthropy is not so much to provide assistance or service; rather, it seeks to permanently alter the conditions that make assistance necessary.”1 One might say that philanthropy, simply stated, is premised on the belief that advocacy of moral actions is again needed to make the world better for everyone. In sum, philanthropic practice is more about the “why” and less about the “how to.”

A recent study by the Bank of America, done with what is now the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, reported three powerful philanthropic trends that have emerged from the pandemic: donors’ increased interest in making unrestricted gifts, concentration of giving to local causes, and increased giving outside of charities.2 These findings suggest that organizations should be planning short-term rather than long-term for the immediate future, to re-stabilize philanthropy.

What is the best way to redefine both the immediate and long-term future for an organization? Is it a simple restart, picking things up where they were left in early 2020? Or is a redesign required to compensate for changes created by the pandemic? Perhaps now is a good time to rebuild essential programs and services that will serve the community better? Whatever plans are chosen, they are likely to require a bit of reinvention to cope with so many external changes.

To begin, let us review the “whys” of philanthropy.

Five Essential Tenets

Philanthropy is a philosophical concept built around human behavior. The Good Samaritan story, that traditional example of people helping people, is the root of philanthropic practice. Humans are free to help others as individuals as well as to volunteer to aid nonprofit organizations that help others. Both are necessary to philanthropy.

A review of five key principles serves as a path to new strategies. Each of the principles is powerful on its own. Together, they embody much about how humans respond to causes and the needs of others.

If we learned nothing else from the pandemic, it is that life is fragile and things that were less important can become more immediate—whether for an individual or an organization.

Altruism. Occasional acts of kindness, while admirable, only scratch the surface of what altruism means to philanthropy. Altruism is an action taken with little or no expectation of acknowledgment or reward. It also makes us feel good, which is beneficial for our mental and physical health. And it is contagious.

Compassion. To care to acknowledge another’s distress is to act to alleviate their condition. How to respond may be restricted by one’s training, such as a doctor or nurse caring for patients. Or it may be simply to offer a hand or a smile in greeting. It also requires a “thank you” as a sincere form of appreciation for a favor received or a service rendered.

Empathy. Being aware or sensitive to another’s condition is a fundamental tenet of philanthropy. This basic understanding leads to a positive response of support. To engage in such activity requires a conscious feeling for someone other than oneself.

Generosity. Active responses to a cause or the needs of others can be expressed in multiple ways and at various levels. The willingness to assist others in a spirit of generosity is accompanied by a responsive action, such as a hand in greeting or a smile. How often, how much, what else, are all possible actions provided such are met with corresponding levels of gratitude by the recipient. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others” according to Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher (106–43 BCE).

Trust. The post-pandemic world will require a rebuilding of trust between individuals and institutions. In the nonprofit world, trust is the essential asset to philanthropy. Belief in a cause and acting to support its purposes can only occur with a high degree of confidence that the work involved is necessary and will be always carried out properly.

Nonprofit organizations can apply these five tenets to guide their efforts to redefine their unique concept of philanthropic practice and to renew their personal commitment to their mission, vision, and values. The best person to guide this process is the senior fundraising executive.

The Role of the Senior Fundraising Executive

The senior fundraising executive serves as the chief steward of everything related to philanthropic practice, beginning with its basic purposes. Whoever this top executive is, regardless of title, manages the organization’s donors and volunteers and their essential support. This stewardship role is not about the money; it is all about what the money can do to benefit others.

Active responses to a cause or the needs of others can be expressed in multiple ways and at various levels.

As Robert L. Payton and Michael P. Moody note in Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission (2008, Indiana University Press):

Whether philanthropy remains alive and vigorous as a tradition in any society rests largely with those who are its stewards. Stewards of philanthropy are found first among those whose livelihood is earned inside the philanthropic sector—the managers of nonprofit organizations and the fundraisers, the planners and organizers of special events, they all bear the most immediate responsibility for philanthropic tradition because it makes their own careers possible. The second group to preserve this tradition are the unpaid volunteers who accept the responsibility of leadership.”3

Accepting this level of responsibility, how does the fundraising manager begin the process of redesigning and rebuilding the communities’ vital engagement and support? By beginning with a reminder to boards, staff, and volunteers of the importance of evaluating how and why, together, we serve our communities in what is now a changed environment. And, in pursuing the joint responsibility to follow the mission, we must understand and embrace the spirit of philanthropy outlined by Payton and Moody above. This will not be easy, especially at a time when the organization’s future may appear to be unclear, and why a new strategic plan is necessary. There is no better time to evaluate whether our post-pandemic mission remains viable.

How might this process begin? By establishing a strategic planning committee composed of board members, selected staff, and community members (both donors and volunteers). Their charge is to evaluate post-pandemic changes that are present and evaluate these against the current mission, vision, and values. For example: Does our mission remain relevant? What changes will better position the organization to serve what has become a changed community?

The strategic plan developed should be short term—no more than the current year and one subsequent year. The purpose of this exploration is not to re-create the organization, but to examine it in the mirror of a changed world. The organization should begin with evaluating its original purpose, the basic “why does it exist,” while reassessing whom it serves, how well it performs, and what more could be offered.

Beware the temptation to address only what it will cost to continue existing programs and services and how to pay for it, because many nonprofits live a day-to-day existence with limited ability to fund current operations. Now is not the time for this singular analysis. Rather, it is about looking to what more the organization can do to meet the changed needs of its community. If the community agrees, they will help meet these needs.

This recommended first step—to explore why the organization exists—is critical. And it is the responsibility of the senior fundraising executive to be the maestro, if you will, of this orchestra that is beginning to practice a musical piece that tells an important story. It’s not about the individual notes being played; it’s about how the notes, when combined, provide a reason for the piece being performed. When completed, the performance will verify how well they succeeded together—much like the strategic plan will provide for the organization.

The organization can now focus on how it might improve. It can address the “how to’s” of philanthropy with a plan for how to attract the funding required; what programs to revise, eliminate, or establish; and whether additional individuals from the community should be served.

Moving Forward

The essence of philanthropy is doing good work for others—serving communities with necessary programs and services carried out by nonprofit organizations. These challenging times offer a good opportunity to define how our cause is on target. What steps should we implement to begin to move forward? Here is a start:

  1. Report to your publics how recent events have impacted normal operations. Explain what actions were necessary to continue limited operations and what programs and services remain in place.
  2. Communicate status and immediate action plans with personal calls, emails, and in-person contact.
  3. Share details about how current operations, however carried out, serve the community; what has been learned; and plans for their improvement.
  4. Explain how post-pandemic changes have impacted both the community and the mission.
  5. Share how other organizations are coping and their performance information.
  6. Reveal new initiatives and improvements based on pandemic experiences.
  7. Address how public participation is key to both recovery and moving forward.
  8. Invite donors and volunteers to participate in open forums to reassess community needs and how best to respond to the “new normal.”

We as a profession should always remember that it’s the “whys” of philanthropy that must be understood and adopted first in order for the “how to’s” to be the most relevant and effective in responding to the needs of our communities.

1. Jamie Merisotis, “We Need Organized Philanthropy—Not Just Charity—to Crete Real Change”, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, September 8, 2020.
2. Bank of America News Release, May 13, 2021, “Nearly 90% of Affluent Americans Gave to Charities in 2020, and Nearly Half Gave for Pandemic Relief”. Bank of America and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
3. Payton & Moody, Ibid, p. 169.

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