The “I” in impact
We know that more than three quarters of the value of all giving in the United States comes from individuals and their estates. Yet we mostly overlook the philanthropic benefit these individuals receive from giving.
Here the tax deduction doesn’t count: it mostly obscures the deeper benefit of giving by covering it with a financial veneer. What really overshadows the personal joy of giving, though, is the trend to systematize giving by focusing on the social good that does not include the giver in the calculus. We seek to subject giving to impact formulas that will do for giving outcomes what income statements do for financial investments.
But few impact metrics I’ve seen focus on the benefits to the donor, other than occasionally showing where he or she ranks compared to peers in terms of financial generosity. There are, however, enlightened donors who reflect on the pleasure as well as the spiritual and communal enrichment they experience through their generosity.
A self-regarding approach isn’t necessarily less rigorous or easier. It can be equally as thoughtful as the trendy, policy intensive approach that seems to suggest that every family should have a virtual think tank to craft and evaluate its strategic impact in the world.
For example, one of the hallmarks of our curriculum at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is to guide students through a philanthropic autobiography through which they synthesize, evaluate, and present the past, current, and future of philanthropy in their lives. In the laudable effort to get more bang for the donated buck it is important not to forget the humanity of the donor, the individual involved in the creative act of giving.
There are risks that come with deeper individual involvement as one exposes oneself more intimately to being affected by giving. Consider the somewhat surprisingly personal way in which donors use one of the sector’s most influential rating tools.
Charity Navigator CEO Michael Thatcher visited our school recently, and we welcomed the expansive and critical vision of ratings we discussed as his team crafts the next phase of this influential guide for many donors.
Charity Navigator was founded in response to a scandal involving financial fraud at a charity, and we learned that the main reason donors consult Charity Navigator today is still to make sure they are not being swindled by the organization they want to give to. The fear of betrayal reveals an intimacy in the act of giving that is precious, standing in stark contrast to the quest for formalization and systems to gauge impact and document accomplishment.
If I get taken for a ride in a commercial deal or encounter a corrupt public official, I won’t take it too personally. But when my gift is willfully misused it can make me feel personally violated. If my intent was to feed a child and instead I learn that the money was used by a charity’s staff member to buy luxury goods, it approaches the kind of betrayal and loss one feels when there is a falling out between parents, siblings, or spouses.
This sense of betrayal motivated Charity Navigator Founder Pat Dugan to start the watchdog. It makes sense that the motive to avoid misplacing something as personal as generosity drove its rapid rise to prominence.
It is not only Charity Navigator that seeks to protect us from waste and its more emotionally wrought cousin, betrayal. We all want our giving to have impact and make a difference. The current profusion of approaches and systems to achieve and measure impact is remarkable and it is keeping our students and faculty busy trying to account for all the ways being invented to make giving more effective and efficient.
But what we should also remember is the fundamental importance of how the donor is affected by giving. Unless we are to move toward regulating and prescribing giving to become a version of voluntary taxation, we should acknowledge that not all of the important purposes of giving have to do with the intended recipient. And remember that donors are not only the elevated few.
More people give than vote. Research done by our professor Sara Konrath demonstrates the tangible health benefits of giving, and we know from legions of accounts about the deep satisfaction people get when donating.
As we are in the season when giving surges we should celebrate its deep personal rewards while also acknowledging its deep personal risks. Philanthropy is more than policy making by other means. It also involves character making and community making that brings with it more emotionally laden engagements. When it goes awry waste becomes betrayal. But when it goes well it transforms relationships and people, making friends and family out of connections and acquaintances.
Giving does not only advance the public good because it benefits others. The public good is increased when givers themselves enjoy the benefits of giving. People who give tend to be more active, engaged, healthy, and happy. Giving itself is also a social good because of what it does for the giver. So worry less about the impact your donations will have on the world at large and focus some of your energy on how giving affects you.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean