We’ve entered an era of power to the people –which dovetails nicely with the definition of philanthropy, from Greek phil loving – + anthrōpos human being. To not recognize this shift may cause us to miss out on a huge opportunity to strengthen our supporter base.
We’re experiencing a radical shift in the way philanthropy is perceived. We can trace the roots of modern philanthropy in the U.S. back to Andrew Carnegie, 1889, and The Gospel of Wealth . Carnegie’s premise is that wealthy have a moral obligation to give back, because they benefitted from society – so society should benefit from them. This is Buffet’s premise as well. But the trend is for more and more donors to be motivated by outcomes and impact rather than moral obligation.
It used to be hard for the 99% to find us and vice-versa. We reached them via direct mail, and that was dependent on our access to lists of names and addresses. If they’d never heard of us, and we had limited marketing resources for outreach, fuggedaboutit. Now, through a host of brand spanking new tools – SEO, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, wikis, podcasts… not to mention email and websites, we have no legitimate excuse to eschew democracy. The era of ‘rule of the people’ is here. Just because what we’ve been doing in this regard has been yielding unsatisfactory results, we are not absolved from persevering and planning strategically to connect with our base.
The marketplace will make or break us depending on our willingness to actively engage. The good news is we’ve an opportunity to establish ourselves as experts and influencers in ways never before imagined. Not only do we have the technological tools to make this happen, we also are in a zeitgeist (witness the Occupy and Tea Party movements) where people desperately want to be able to exert some control over the society within which they live. In fact, increasingly we’re coming to understand that we are social businesses, dedicated to social purpose, with an open and collaborative relationship with the outside world. The public benefit sector can give people the control for which they urgently yearn.
The Occupy movement is at the core of what’s happening in our society and it should inform the philanthropic sector. People are rebelling against the vested interests of the powerful who they see as standing in the way of (fill in the blank). They are more aware of what is going on in the world and more able than ever before to share ideas, facts, experiences and testimonials. We need to get inside their heads to fully experience what they value. They want to be part of the decision-making and not have this left to an elite few who “know best.” This is one of the reasons umbrella fundraising organizations have had such a difficult row to hoe over the past decade. The paternalistic Hamiltonian model of philanthropic allocation has been dying for years.
The entire world is one big neighborhood and, as Mr. Rogers used to tell us, it’s a beautiful day. Information is power, and it’s no longer the province of the few. The majority are walking the talk of ‘if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’. They may learn at the same moment about what is happening and by what means social problems are being addressed and resolved. The 99% may inf
orm the conversation and offer their own resolutions.
Technology is empowering people to come together like never before—both for good and for bad— it’s now philanthropy’s role to shape how newly connected groups grow and change the world around them. In the 2008 election the political process was transformed through social media and small donor fundraising. This year the same empowerment gave us the Arab spring. It’s time to join the zeitgeist and move our fundraising focus from the elite few to the middle majority.
Too many nonprofits have donor pyramids that are in danger of toppling over. Let’s take a page from Aristotle, who emphasized the middle class as the core strength of a viable democracy. Let’s desist in focusing only on the select few and strengthen our cores. The people at the heart of our constituency will always hold far greater sway in their spheres of influence than will we. Our job then is to equip them to recruit those they know to participate in a cause we all value, and to assist them in coaching others into greater engagement and investment. If we occupy anything, let’s occupy a philanthropy that truly is of the people, by the people and for the people.
- What are you doing to expand engagement by other than major donors so that your constituents fully occupy philanthropic investment in your cause?
- Do you think continuing to emphasize major giving will result in lost opportunity in this digital revolution we’re experiencing?
- Do you think that not emphasizing major giving will result in lost opportunity to develop transformational gifts?
- How do you find the optimal balance – without working 24/7?