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Be a Skillful Donor and Help Change the “Anti-Social Sector”

In an article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review site last week, Tris Lumley wrote an article called Transforming Our Anti-Social Sector, in which he points to the need for a paradigm shift in the conceptual model for creating social and environmental impacts. With it, he tactfully criticizes how we donors are focused on our own priorities; so we are assured that our money is not “wasted” and we get our demands met. He also criticizes institutional donors (like foundations and government agencies) for lacking strategic collaboration, as they seek to emphasize the distinct contributions of their particular organization. As donors, what does this tell us about how we might better engage and contribute to the maximum impact in the areas of our concern?

Lumley is a reputable commentator, as the director of development for New Philanthropy Capital, a London-based nonprofit sector think tank. His article is elegant and concise in its brevity. Please note that what we call the nonprofit or non-governmental sector in American English is called the “social sector” in the United Kingdom and its territories. His allows Lumley to make a play on words where he points to parts of the social sector that are thwarting their own aims, hence “anti-social.” Here is his illustration of that:

“If impact isn’t central to the model – an ‘anti-social sector’.”

The new paradigm that Lumley suggests uses a systems thinking approach to understand the beneficiaries of the mission, and to engage a diverse array of collaborators. In the end, his message is that nonprofits bear the responsibility for affecting the change to this new and better paradigm. He calls on nonprofits to reach out and gather data for collaborations, engage people from other sectors, create shared goals, etc. It is a potent vision of change and, if left to nonprofits, is one that is doomed to failure.

Because we donors show up with so much power of the purse – carrying the financial resources to make the whole system run – unless we change our expectations, engagement, and behavior, the paradigm will continue as it is today and resources will be diverted from creating the greatest impacts. For nonprofits, taking on this new paradigm and not making funders’ (our) demands a priority is just too much of a risk to take.

Here is how Lumley pictures the new paradigm:

Both model images: NPC, 2014

This model’s appeal is undeniable. In order to achieve it, we donors need to shift from the old system┬á and be more pro-social by:

  • Understanding more about the beneficiaries we are trying to affect with our gifts. This means doing some research and, in as much as possible, experiencing them first hand. If we are trying to help human beneficiaries, that means attempting to have authentic relationships with those folks. If we are hoping to help support the Earth’s environment, then it means visiting places that are at risk (at least virtually).
  • Learning more about the programs, activities, and performance of the nonprofits that are addressing that issue. As donors, it is important that we understand the intervention strategies for each nonprofit, how that nonprofit assesses their impacts to constantly improve their programs, and how they are creating and achieving collaborative goals with partner entities. If we are requiring the nonprofit to report on measurables that we determine and for our own benefit, we are neither helping them, nor the beneficiaries.
  • Being supportive when the nonprofit takes calculated risks – with our contributions – for the sake of potentially better results. If these problems were easy to solve, they would have been solved long ago. Creating important impacts takes creativity; creativity is expensive and involves risk; risk sometimes involves failure, yet can produce useful learning.
  • Looking for ways that we can make the greatest contributions to support these efforts. That is, not seek to bend the work of nonprofits to benefit our own ego needs. Make contributions where the nonprofit needs it most. That might mean doing direct services, making introductions, or helping them build new relationships on top of our financial contributions.

We as donors can either thwart or aid the effectiveness of nonprofits, and our own satisfaction, in improving something we care about. Which of these alternatives we achieve depends on how we manage our own role as a contributor, how well we fuel the efforts of organizations in the nonprofit sector, and in how we engage to help them to create maximum impact. This is the core of my work with donors as The Giving Coach. All of your gifts come from you, so how you show up matters. Let’s work to become more skillful donors.

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