How to Be a Philanthropist

I was with a buddy a few weeks ago and conversation veered into Experience Baseball fundraising. As soon as I started talking about asking for money, my buddy began to get defensive.

“Everybody has a cause,” he said. “There are more NGOs than people to support them. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to get involved with the right one. So I just feel like a jerk if I don’t give a buck to everybody.”

We talked a little more. He shared that he felt pressure from society to give to charity and that it even caused him stress:

“I hate even being asked to add a dollar to my grocery store purchases. Everywhere I go people are asking for money. In most cases I want to help but I feel overwhelmed with the choices to the point that I just shut down.”

“Nobody ever taught me how to be philanthropic.”

There are one zillion charitable causes and foundations and nonprofits in this world, many of them managed responsibly by passionate, dedicated people. But with as many choices that exit and that vie for our dollar or time or connections, we can quickly get decision-fatigue about how and where to put our efforts. And the mental fatigue and stress caused by being inundated with so many solicitations overwhelm us and shut us down to the possibility of giving or participating in a movement that we are passionate about.

A step further, even once we’ve selected the cause that speaks to us, we don’t always know the most effective way to participate. Philanthropists want to feel necessary to the cause. We want to know that our dollars and time will get the most bang for the buck.

Unless we’ve studied philanthropy in a few very excellent institutions across the country, we all enter this realm somewhat blindly. And for most, the very prospect of entering blindly into anything that involves our hard-earned money or our valuable time will understandably shut us off to the idea completely.

Most of us have not been taught how to be philanthropists.

For most of us, our hearts are in the right place. We are aware enough to know that the water heater is leaking, so to speak. But we don’t always know from where the leak has sprung or how to fix it without help. Social problems—and we can name a few: homelessness, underemployment, poorly funded schools, urban food deserts, housing redlining, poor health care options—exist right outside our doors, or perhaps, inside our own homes. But it can be overwhelming without the right tools and knowledge to understand them or to address them effectively.

We are taught to feel empathy and compassion about these issues, but we are not taught how to deal with them appropriately and within our means. This causes more stress. Our hearts are in the right place. But our money and time and efforts are not.

How to be a Philanthropist

I offer only some of my own thoughts. This is by no means a complete list or process. It has been helpful to me. Maybe it will be a helpful starting place for others.

1. Discover your passion.

What do you care about? Your passion; not someone else’s. Philanthropy should make us feel connected and necessary to the cause closest to us and what we care about.

If I was writing a how-to, I’d say make a list of the things you care about most. Identify the top 2 or 3 things that you are most passionate about as an individual.

2. Know the issues.

What social issue(s) affect your passion? To feel connected and necessary we need to know a little about the challenges our passions face. Do some quick research. It won’t take long to google “Education Issues” or “Baseball Social Issues” or “[City] Social Challenges” or the like. If it’s something you care about, you’ll find something that speaks to you that maybe you didn’t even know about. Identify the top 2 or 3 issues that affect your top passions.

3. Find the experts.

Who are the professionals who already deal with these issues? The issues you see are already well-known and are already being dealt with by people and organizations as passionate and dedicated as you. Again, do some web research: add the words “organizations” or “associations” to your search. There are great resources available like Guidestar.com for information about every nonprofit organization that works in your neighborhood or works on the issues you care about. And these experts and professionals likely need your support to further their efforts.

(Do some thoughtful vetting. Visit the “About” pages and get to know a little about the organization’s leadership. Philanthropy is NOT a competition. For the most part, no group can do philanthropy and social work incorrectly. To be “better” at philanthropy is not the goal: to improve the social issue is. Find a couple of organizations or people that tell you the most about how they work to improve the issues you’re passionate about.)

4. Join the movement — at your speed.

Find out how you can participate effectively and within your means. Actually contact the organizations, tell them about yourself and what you have to offer, and ask them directly where your resources can be the most helpful.

There likely is more than one way you and your skill sets and resources can impact the work on the issues you care about. Sometimes the best way for you to help is to donate money. If hitting the “DONATE” button is the most helpful for the organization at that time—and if you feel comfortable knowing that it is the best use of your resources—then by all means feel free to donate generously online.

But ask first. (Check out this great example of a “getting involved” email we received recently)

You may be able to offer business connections, “in-kind” support through your job, volunteer hours, manual labor skills, accounting or legal direction, mentorship, scholarship, communication, or even your own ideas. Again, philanthropists want to feel connected and needed. Money may definitely be needed, but don’t discount your ability to help and support the issues you care about through other faculties and resources. It’s worth a quick email exchange to find out where your talents and resources can be most useful to the organization and how you can feel the most connected to the issue. As the experts, the orgs should know exactly what and how much they need to do exactly what they want to do.

We’re seemingly busier than ever: we’re more connected, more aware, more involved. Our minds are pulled in a thousand directions every day. Philanthropy should not add more drain, mental fatigue, and stress.

Philanthropy and helping others should be easy. Not thoughtless, but easy.

Helping others should be stress-free. It should make us feel connected and necessary, it should improve our own sense of pride in our place, it should contribute to our sense of Good and morality. And it should reassure us and build trust that our valuable time and money is being used to the most effective and efficient means at solving the issues that we care about the most.