Use your head and heart when giving

There’s a trend in philanthropy to treat the act of giving as an “investment decision”.

What gets lost in all of this focus on evaluation and numbers is the grace and joy of philanthropy. Philanthropy reconnects us with others and reminds us of our shared humanity.

Two years ago, I visited a local homeless shelter and I asked the director, a Unitarian minister, how he measured effectiveness. I expected him to say something about the number of people he had helped find jobs, or the number of breakfast sandwiches it handed out, etc. Instead, he replied simply: “Last year one of our [homeless] regulars died. We paid for his coffin and his burial. And 10 people, who he’d gotten to know here, showed up for his funeral.” He paused. “Does that answer your question?”

That sobering encounter made me think hard. The fact that the non-profit provided a place where a homeless person made friends who cared enough to go to his funeral – something that would not fit into anyone’s investment metrics – speaks volumes about how this non-profit made an impact on this person’s quality of life.

Recent research on philanthropy points to the fact that it is a highly emotional and social behavior. The work of Deborah Small, a professor of marketing at Wharton business school, shows that presenting potential donors with metrics suppresses donations because it lowers empathy. It is empathy, her research says, that triggers giving.

That’s not to say that effectiveness does not matter and we should look only to our hearts. It matters a great deal, but the human dimension is just as important. Many non-profits are trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And that’s hard to do.

This is the gift of philanthropy. It will awaken you to the joys, sorrows and above all, the hopes of life and our world.

[Excerpt of an article by Perla Ni, The Financial Times]

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