Do a Little Bit More: Become a Philanthropist

"Calculator," by Flickr user Anssi Koskinen (Creative Commons)

There are two routes to becoming a philanthropist.

You can play a real-world version of Monopoly, gather up all the railroads and the dark-blue leases and then flip the board over and start playing Give-it-all-away. (Note to Parker Bros.: You’re welcome to the idea of marketing a version of this venerable game that models generosity on one side of the board and acquisitiveness on the other.)

Or you can sit down with a blank sheet of paper and make yourself a plan for personal philanthropy. Having a plan is all it takes. Philanthropists come in all sizes, shapes and colors. They are the people who think carefully about what kind of community and what kind of world we should share. Once they’ve done that, these people are in a stronger position to put energy, attention and money to work to move things in that direction.

Oh no, you might say, these days I don’t have enough money to make that kind of thinking worth bothering with. I’ll just give what I can, when somebody asks, and hope I’m making a difference.

Well, the reports from people who have made personal philanthropy plans suggest there are good reasons for making a plan even when the amounts of time and money you have to think about are small. Here are a few:

  • You can start with the kinds of change you want to see happen, the causes you want to advance. Then you can choose a moment to check out organizations that can help you multiply the effect of your volunteer time or your donations. (Idealist.org is, obviously, one good place to start exploring these possibilities.)
  • Once you find organizations that match your goals, you can focus your philanthropy—of whatever size and form—on them. Everyone who studies nonprofit finances says fewer larger gifts and genuinely committed volunteers are the keys to efficiency and effectiveness. And those are outcomes every philanthropist wants to see.
  • And—a surprisingly important result for many people who have followed this route—you’ll have a strong and respectful answer when you’re asked to contribute to a cause or organization that isn’t part of your plan. You can say to a friend, or to someone who interrupts your dinner with a fund-raising call (grrrrr!), “I respect the work you’re doing but I have a plan for what I can give this year and I’m sorry that it doesn’t have room for anything more right now.” If you have any enthusiasm for the cause at all, you can add something like “If you send me some information about your work, I’ll put it in the file so when I’m thinking about next year I’ll be able to remember your ideas.”

If you become a philanthropist—by the simple step of making up your own plan for how and where to give—you gain confidence that you’re supporting the causes you care most about, you maximize the effect of your gifts, and you have a ready-made way to turn away appeals that might otherwise make you uncomfortable. In the list of ways to do a little bit more, this one seems like a slam dunk.

If you’d like to share your personal philanthropic plan with someone, you can send it to putnam@idealist.org; we might even do a follow-up post with some examples (with your permission, of course).

This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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