Thursday, October 11, 2007

Are relationships "everything" in philanthropy, today?

The blog Seeking Grant Money Today invited me to respond to some questions for the next Giving Carnival.
"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate..."

Are relationships "everything" in philanthropy, today?

Yes. But not just today: always and ever. Philanthropy cannot exist outside of the context of a relationship.

Here is some background on this term that we bandy about like a flag, full of pride in watching its colors wave but forgetting its deeper significance:

philanthropy: 1608, from L.L. philanthropia, from Gk. philanthropia "humanity, benevolence," from philanthropos (adj.) "loving mankind," from phil- "loving" + anthropos "mankind." Originally in L.L. form; modern spelling attested from 1623. Philanthropist is first recorded 1730.

Philanthropy is a means of connecting to others with whom we share some form of relationship, even if nothing more than shared humanity and cohabitation of the same earth. It is this "relationship" that compels us to practice philanthropy, that most human of acts. . . indeed, greater than human. For there is no reason for philanthropy. It is not a reasonable action within the void of self: it only makes sense relationally.

The term relation further comes from the Latin relationem, signifying "a bringing back, restoring." Hence, the very genesis of our understanding of relationships is a core identification of our connection to others within a shared space -- a common fate and destiny, even.

When people say that philanthropy is "all about the relationship," they generally are talking about the way that someone can convince a donor to invest in a third party (i.e. an organization). But we must remember that the fundraiser is irrelevant to the act of philanthropy. In the best of circumstances, they are a guide to the donor ... a facilitator of the donor's own natural philanthropic intent. They illuminate the path, they point the way -- they are at best a Virgil to the donor's Dante.

Although their relationship to the donor is important in allowing them to gain the position of guide through heaven and hell, it is the donor's relationship to the souls along the path that compels their philanthropy.

If a fundraiser wants to succeed, she must step aside and focus the donor on their relationship to the beneficiaries of their philanthropy (and, just as importantly, on their relationship to their idealized self).

If philanthropic relationships are not everything, what is critical to philanthropy's modern success?

Modern success is no different than past success. It cannot be measured in dollars or percentages. It can be measured only in terms of its impact on the relationship between the donor and the "other" to whom they are connected through their philanthropy.

A philanthropic action that secures funds but fails to build a connection between the donor and the mission is not a success. It is a transaction.

Philanthropy should aspire for more than the transactional: it should yearn for the transformational.

Fundraisers must realize that they are more case managers than marketers.

Who do relationships in philanthropy form between today, compared to the past?

The tools may be different and the pace a bit faster, but the relationships are the same. There are possibly more distractions, but that is likely the fault of the fundraisers who consider themselves marketers rather than relationship coaches.

Where is the innovation, in developing relationships in philanthropy?

The aforementioned tools can enhance the ability to quickly develop massive amounts of weak relationships: correspondence vehicles such as mail merges, emails and blogs dramatically expand the capacity of a fundraiser to shout from the rooftops. But to be more than a fly buzzing in a donors' ear, fundraisers must tap that eternal source of philanthropic drive: the connections that motivate philanthropic responses in the donor.

These tools are best utilized as a way of tracking relationship growth and analyzing donor data to determine their most responsive connections. Beyond that, they can be very helpful in their ability to mass-personalize otherwise impersonal items such as receipt letters and reports. This makes them feel far more personal than they are.

But in relationships, perception is often reality.

How do modern relationships in philanthropy begin; and how are they maintained?

The same as ancient relationships: they begin with our connections as children to the world around us; mature as we enter adolescence and begin to understand ourselves within the context of that world; and become realized when we enter adulthood and begin realizing the impact of those connections on our core identity. There is no new science to the development of our minds, souls and selves. Technology simultaneously creates more noise in the physical space in which our connections exist as well as greater capacity to cut through that noise to find what we want... but it's still all about relationships.

The music might have changed, but we still use the same muscles to dance.

What are philanthropic relationships' effects on the causes they are supposed to serve?

Relationships do not serve causes. People in relationships serve people. The effect of these relationships is that their strength determines the capacity of people to achieve the goals of the cause, but it must all fundamentally come back to people.

Is their oversight of relationships in philanthropy, and if so, what are the checks and balances on them?

Again, fundraisers need to see themselves as relationship managers more than marketers. There is still a far greater emphasis on marketing than relationship management in almost all fundraising courses and philanthropy seminars.

The checks and balances are that donors who do not have a strong relationship to the people served by the fundraisers' organization will react by ending their philanthropy.

Are there times that relations should be broken, and if so, in what situations?

Of course. There are expensive donors who do not have a positive relationship with the people served by the people seeking philanthropy. These relationships should be broken for the good of all parties. It does not help a client to be connected to a donor who does not have a positive relationship to them.

Again, philanthropy should aspire for the transformational over the transactional. It is not about funding. It is about achieving our purpose.

As a person of faith, I believe it all comes back to developing a relationship that mirrors our desired relationship to God. Securing gifts that do not come out of a positive relationship not only struggle to yield positive results, they can destroy the results of those gifts that do result from a positive relationship.

For the sake of your donors and the clients you serve, focus on building relationships between them that are based on mutual respect, compassion and a shared sense of responsibility to one another.