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Taking Stock: How Meaningful Is Your Giving?

Jul 12, 2023

As you look to gear up your giving, the very first thing to do is take stock with two simple questions:

How much impact do you think you are having?

How much satisfaction are you feeling?

These two questions go hand in hand, but too often philanthropists focus more on one than the other. Let’s explore this further with a four-question self-assessment.

  1. Have you ever engaged in giving that you knew wasn’t helping those in the greatest need but was super important to you personally? Maybe you supported an educational institution your children attend or the capital campaign for someplace that already has a huge endowment.
  2. Have you ever engaged in giving that you were pretty sure wasn’t producing much benefit for others and didn’t bring you much satisfaction either? Maybe this was giving that you were doing to satisfy a social obligation, or it was the pet project of another branch of the family. Or, maybe you’ve had the experience of giving money to a donor-advised fund but haven’t gotten around to putting the money to work in the world by making distributions.
  3. Have you ever pushed so hard to maximize the impact of your giving that you squeezed the joy out of it with performance contracts, metrics, and milestones—and still came away wondering if you were actually achieving the impact you were hoping for?
  4. How often have you hit the sweet spot in your giving, such as grants that truly support people and organizations you really believe are making a difference in the world? How often do these successes bring you a deep sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction?

If you consider your present situation, what’s the relative balance for you between these four types of giving? There’s no judgment here—this is just a conversation you’re having with yourself.

Four Kinds of Giving

As we delve into a more detailed review of these four kinds of giving  you may gain insight into why you might be feeling turned off by a lot of what you see going on in the world of philanthropy. Most importantly, I hope this will help you reflect on where you are currently and where you want to end up.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve labeled these four categories of giving as: selfish, senseless, spiritless, and meaningful.   Only one of these four options is a place you want to end up as you gear up your giving: meaningful giving. Let’s walk through each to see why.

Selfish Giving

This is what happens when a donor focuses on gratifying their own immediate, ego-driven needs without much regard for the greater good. This might involve giving money to an already-wealthy private school or having a building named after you to better ensure your kids will get through the admissions process. Often, selfish giving is more like a purchase disguised as philanthropy. There are other forms of self-centered giving that aren’t quite so blatant. For example, when a donor is so attached to their own vision of making change and how the world works that they execute their giving in a way that builds up a bubble of BS all around them. Their grantees and staff are all whitewashing reality to fit within the storyline this type of giver insists is true, regardless of contradictory evidence from the real world.

Senseless Giving

Next, let’s talk about senseless giving. This is the kind of giving that doesn’t produce significant social impact or satisfaction to the donor. What? Why would someone do this? Because, in a number of cases, people use their giving to meet relatively trivial needs. A good example of this is a social obligation: you came to my dinner party, so I’ll buy a table at your charity gala. In this instance, the giving is more of a friendly trade and has little to do with what the cause is or even whether the recipient is doing something that actually benefits others. There are too many nonprofit organizations whose true reason for being is more about sustaining a set of social connections under the guise of “purpose” than advancing a mission of significant social consequence. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but we shouldn’t confuse this kind of activity with making the world a better place. Sometimes the self-serving and the senseless intersect. Reflexive, reciprocal giving to someone else’s self-serving philanthropic project is a great example of this. Think about people who have given to Donald Trump’s “charities” only to end up subsidizing the painting of his personal portraits that hang in the clubhouses of his golf courses.

Of course, there’s another form of senseless giving that is perhaps the most senseless of all: parking huge amounts of money in donor-advised funds without actually giving it away. Technically, this is “giving” because in a formal, legal sense, the donor no longer owns these assets and has received the benefit of a charitable tax deduction. In reality, this money is sitting on the sidelines, not producing any impact. Meanwhile, the world is on fire. What is more senseless than that?

Spiritless Giving

What is spiritless giving? This is about seeking maximum social impact in a joyless, nonrelational, untrusting, mechanistic way. We see examples of this in grant agreements that are hyperfocused on metrics and milestones regardless of whether they truly serve the intended impact. The metaphor here is important. “Milestones” imply that we are on a road going from one clear destination to another. We can measure exactly how much progress we’ve made with reference to these markers. How well do you think that metaphor holds up to the actual reality of making progress against complex social challenges? A related indicator of spiritless giving is focusing on verification and documentation of every little detail that is susceptible to empirical analysis. This loses focus on the big picture and is deeply dispiriting for nonprofit, social entrepreneurs who have proximity to the issues they are working on. They know if they could just do what made sense on the ground, they would be able to achieve far more impact than by dutifully following rigidly structured grant agreements.

So, what’s going on here? How do donors get caught in this trap of confusing rigor for relevance? One of the most common reasons is that they are conducting their giving from a place of distrust. This can easily happen if your mental model of human nature tells you that left to their own devices, most people will goof off and take advantage. From this perspective, the vision and drive in your giving has to come from you and you alone. Grantees are “hired help” on whom you have to keep a watchful eye. Another reason some donors fall into spiritless giving is confusion—even fear—in the face of uncertainty about how their philanthropic “investments” are performing. These donors don’t deliberately want to run roughshod over their grantees, but they also have no idea how to tell if their precious resources are actually producing the results they want to achieve. So, they go overboard measuring whatever they can and hope for the best, or they shift their investments only to what is easily measurable at the expense of what is more meaningful.

For all these reasons, spiritless giving is not a stable equilibrium for most donors. It’s often a slippery slope toward senseless giving: giving less or not at all because the experience feels so frustrating and joyless. This brings us to the idea of “currency of fulfillment.” Only when you are feeling sufficiently fulfilled by your giving will you stick with it and truly maximize your positive impact and potential as a philanthropist.

Meaningful Giving

The good news is there is a better way. Meaningful giving is where social impact and donor satisfaction are integrated into something greater. This is giving in which the donor pursues a personally meaningful vision for a better world, while at the same time embracing reality and seeking to understand and learn from those their giving touches. This approach opens up space for the wisdom, passion, and proximity of others to shape the path of your giving. This way of giving is grounded in a respect for the agency of everyone involved and provides a rich context for your own learning and growth as a human being and as a philanthropist. This is the path of joyful impact.


Check out Money with Meaning for lots more!

There are many more tools and frameworks to help donors, philanthropy advisors and social entrepreneurs and fundraising professionals on the journey to more meaningful giving in my book Money with Meaning: How to Create Joy and Impact through Philanthropy.   You can find the book on Amazon here, and whether or not you have the book, you can access a free, chapter by chapter digital playbook with over 50 videos and worksheets here.  

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