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The #PHILANTHROPIST 1: Footsteps, Office Culture, & Giving Tradition

In my Donor Development training session on “Why Philanthropists Give,” I include the following anecdote, which I’ll abbreviate here:

Some years ago, I asked a famous philanthropist to walk me through how he sees the sign over the building for which he had funded 90 percent of the cost, to a tune of $15 million of his own money. He gave me, and I will never ever forget, a stern look. He turned red. He was annoyed and angry, and I feared he might hurl me 20 stories down to the street.

Everything in my own body language was saying: “What did I do wrong??” The donor did not stay shy for too long, and stepped in to explain. Michael, he said… you don’t understand…I had a dream, and in the dream God told me to build this building for the community. I am simply following what God told me to do. I see no place, added the donor, for a sign with my name on the walls of this holy building! This building is a credit to God – not to me – the philanthropist concluded his answer, with all seriousness. This is the part where everyone’s jaw falls to the floor!

I had not in my lifetime, my years of work with donors, expected such a surprising answer. Nor did I know this when we started working on the project together.

Important to note, perhaps, that this why the preface asks: “How much do we really know about the WHO” – and naturally, the WHO are the Philanthropists. This was not meant to be “theoretical”. As in this specific example, it’s meant to be very practical.

How much do we really know about the reasons they give and their motivations to engage with us?

Why am I telling you this introductory story, in this first of several installments on The #PHILANTHROPIST designed to explain why Philanthropists give? I wanted to surprise you – at least a bit. I wanted to make the point, that there is always something surprising (to my mind) in the reasons why people give. I have been working with donors for quite some time, you could say for almost 25 years. And for most of it, with


What makes this work especially beautiful? The reasons these individuals engage in philanthropy. These reasons are as wild and as fascinating as watching docudramas about some of the most amazing people in the history of mankind. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to give you more than a handful of examples of these beautiful people and their reasons… the full-scale examples really belong to the F2F training sessions where we can dialogue at length about Philanthropists, Philanthropy, and Giving.

Let’s start the list of why Philanthropists engage in Philanthropy or – to put it more simply – in Giving:

Philanthropists give because there is a #GivingTradition. This giving tradition is often related to their family. Their parents gave or, as the first donor I met on the job – as Director of Donor Development for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh – said to me in August 1999: “My father used to give and I follow in his footsteps.” She shared with me, and with the then-CEO/President of the Federation, the wealth of footsteps she felt she was following. What was special in this meeting, with this specific donor, was to watch how spellbound she felt when she spoke of the footsteps she felt she “only” followed.

Allow me to add a few words about her. A real estate developer, one of the most prominent leaders I ever met. And in “prominent”, I am trying to say a strong woman, opinionated (in the good sense!), who knows what she wants and leads! In the footsteps of her father, she created one of the most significant programs for professional communal leadership in Eastern Europe and has shown more appreciation to professionals than I’ve ever seen from any other lay leader. A fascinating leader, loved working with her!

This tradition was indeed inspiring. Many of us feel we have a giving tradition we follow and try to pass on to our heirs. But this Giving Tradition can also be a function of one’s office culture.

Many corporations and law firms in Pittsburgh have this “tradition”, and this same tradition exists across the country. Giving Tradition has also become part of the culture of many leading companies around the world, not only that they contribute, they develop #socialgood engagement opportunities for their employees. In giving, corporations see more than a commitment to #globalgood, initiating diverse opportunities for themselves – from the president down to the last employee – to make the world a better place. Giving Tradition is a current and recurring theme. It may have used to be a personal and individual phenomenon, but to my mind it is turning to be an opportunity to also follow others and share heritage.

Giving Tradition is a serious business, way beyond what most of us realize. It starts with what we see and share at home, but goes far beyond that. For some of us, there’s a transitional phase when we still say, “I do it because my ______ did it.” Then, when we feel that giving is so strongly embedded in us, that initial motivation may recede as other rationales shape and lead the way we articulate our Philanthropy.

Before I conclude this first post about Philanthropy, I want to mention context. Tradition or Heritage as motivations for Philanthropy are only two of many more pillars in the way Philanthropists feel and articulate their Philanthropy I doubt if any of the Philanthropists, with whom I’ve had the privilege to work, engaged because of one reason only. I think Philanthropists carry a multifaceted world of reasoning within them. And they keep working among these ‘facets’. It’s complex and can be portrayed in many ways.

‘Til the next post about The Philanthropists…



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