Philanthropy Under Fire

It seems that even the so-called good guys don’t always get it right.

Philanthropy, often perceived as the selfless, altruistic pursuit of giving, can also breed dissonance in what is right, proper, effective, legal, ethical, pure, culturally acceptable, purposeful, elevated, noble or even desirable.

Just consider the increasing chatter that judges philanthropy or the management of the philanthropy of others and the swath of high profile criticism.

From screaming headlines about incompetence or malfeasance within non-profits to equally breathless stories about ‘dirty’ money or money from donors with questionable motives, philanthropy is arguably now a target of the same kind of scrutiny as any other for-profit enterprise. We hear so much more about what went wrong than what went right.

Consider the rich and diverse cast of characters that could be scripted into the fictitious (so far) reality show called Philanthropy Gone Bad:

The non-profit organizations Episodes might expose execs misusing donor funds for favorite projects or excesses or to cover deficits or (insert your favorite scandal plot line here.)

The boards Episodes could be based on the inevitable political intrigue such as issues of power and control, factions, influence peddlers or deadwood or …

Professional staff Imagine the drama of confrontation or passive aggressive twists and turns that highlight the conflicts between those who are mission driven and those who focus on productivity and metrics. Office ladder climbing. Corner cutting. Outright foul play.

Individual Donors Committed small donors. Significant past donors. Past donors with “major gift potential.” Boomers and Seniors who might make a bequest. Whole classes of people identified through market segmentation. Cold call prospects identified by analytics of net worth. (Hey, they’re rich, aren’t they?) Everybody else.) Donors come in every flavor imaginable and the stories about their finances and their motivations would become a long running series. Like guilt money. Like sanitized money. Like buying status or access, or fame.

Corporate Donors By department: Community Affairs, Product sales, Advertising and Marketing, the corporate foundations, etc.) These episodes could be entitled “Follow the Money” or even better, “Where’s the Quid Pro Quo?”

Foundation Donors (public and private). Talk about power and influence! Imagine episodes showing boards actually making decision. Full transparency for the bully, the newbie, the know-it-all. Who decided to change from inspiring grassroots creativity to narrowly defining RFP’s (requests for proposals)? Mission creep by fiat? When did a “Shark Tank” lightening round of questions pitting one potential recipient against another become acceptable?

Professionals who Service the Industry So many characters….so many episodes of cover-ups, cost overruns, and creative communication. And some seemingly funnier anecdotes like the consultant who warmed over a previously used (and paid for) strategy and forgot to change a client name in a cut and paste page. Financial gurus who aren’t. Made-up testimonial that appears in “customized marketing pieces. “

The opening two-hour pilot could include:

Ms. Coy persuades an elderly gentleman to make a significant bequest despite evidence that he had been experiencing cognitive decline. She makes goal and receives a “merit” raise.

A well known and well respected businessman makes a large, highly touted gift to the local non-profit which names a new facility for him. Five years later, he is a convicted felon. Half the hospital board wants to remove his name.

Charitable gifts to a foundation are deemed to be for political action, despite the donor’s a
claim of a charitable deduction.

Alma Mater College overstates fundraising successes by using a new, non -standard counting convention to beat peers in the rankings. The campaign leader is recruited to a new institution based on the perceived achievement.

A very public re-naming opportunity of a famous concert hall is sold to the highest bidder with the family of the former donor “paid off” to relinquish the name.

A black-tie, celebrity gala purportedly raises $2 million for medical research, but is $200,000 goes to the charity after expenses.

While tongue in cheek, the faux mini-series is the old “bad apple” saga with the “ripped from the headlines” immediacy of the 24 hour news cycle. While these kinds of things may happen, they exaggerate the idea that non-profits and philanthropy and the whole charitable “industry” are untrustworthy, corrupt, dirty, and lacking.

Sure, there are those who test or even cross the line. There are far more who honorably and often thanklessly do the work of the charitable organizations, those who give of their time and money, and whose motivations are noble. They…we… are the third sector: people who are part of the non-industrial, non- governmental economy who provide energy and resources for the public good.

Be proud to be a volunteer, a donor, a board member, a non-profit leader or staff member, a philanthropic advisor, a fundraiser, a legacy partner or even a passionate advocate. Remember those key words: for the public good.

Enid M. Ablowitz, CFRE, CSPG, is a veteran advancement professional, author and consultant who is dedicated to educating and guiding donors and non-profit organizations on the art and science of strategic philanthropy.

Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera on April 6, 2015.

‘Til next time — Give Well, Give for Good.