Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pledgers need to not just give smart, but be engaged

While it was overshadowed by the unveiling of the Buffett/Gates Giving Pledge,* another significant announcement was made this week in the world of philanthropy, back in my home town of Minneapolis: Winston Wallin received the first "Minnesota Engaged Philanthropist" award from the Twin-Cities based Social Venture Partners.

This announcement has personal significance for me--I was one of Wallin's "Wallin Scholars," a program that has given over $20 million in college scholarships to help people like me afford tuition. But the award's importance also resonates beyond Twin Cities youth and serves as a message for the average billionaire joining the Gates/Buffett entourage. Giving is simply no longer enough, but now it has to be smart and engaged.

Adding another dimension to the "smart giving" mantra, the concept of engaged philanthropy (which had its third annual conference in Minneapolis last week) pushes philanthropists to not only give and not only give smart, but be involved in the supporting organization's work. In the case of Wallin, he fundraised to build a new cancer center at the University of Minnesota and then came on--at no pay--to turn around the floundering health sciences division. He also has met every one of his Scholars--there are around 3,000 of us now. (He's a very nice man, with a very nice family.)

For me, engaged philanthropy is about doing whatever the philanthropist can do to support the organization's mission with the skills and resources he or she has. This could be technical assistance, fundraising, helping with staff hiring, in-kind donations, whatever. Being engaged means finding those needs in the organization or in the community and then filling them.

In an op-ed piece at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Thomas J. Tierney said that those philanthropists willing to sign on to the Giving Pledge and donate half their fortune to charity can't just jump into "check-writing mode," but need to direct their resources to programs that work. I would take that a step further and say that these philanthropist need to get into the thick of it to figure out what programs work and how they can offer the full extent of their resources to the organizations they support. Like the Wallins and the McCary family--who funded my scholarship from the Wallin Foundation and sent me cards and Christmas presents to keep in touch--those new Pledgers need to not only give smart, but be engaged.

The flip side of this increased engagement--which was brought up in the Star Tribune article linked above--is a donor who takes too much control over an organization. I can see this being a problem in certain cases, but a continued focus from both the donor and the organization on its mission can help mitigate those issues and guide an organization's actions. And, considering the lack of interest most donors have for impacts, an increased awareness and involvement in an organization can never be a bad thing.

*For more information on the Giving Pledge see the Chronicle of Philanthropy coverage, Tactical Philanthropy's analysis and the strangely Skull-and-Bones-esque back story on Fortune.

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