The Art of Giving

I was at a dinner party over the weekend and the conversation flowed to the catastrophic Nepal earthquake. My art loving friend, Teddy, asked “but what can we do to help?”

The table lit up.

“I gave via Facebook and they matched my donation”
“I think my contributions to the Red Cross will go to the relief effort – but I’m not sure”
“I donated via Crowdrise”
“’I sent a text to Global Giving and made a donation that way”
“So what should I do?”, asked Teddy. “It’s like decoding a Jackson Pollock!”

Many of my well-intentioned and generous peers are paralyzed by philanthropic choice. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are 1.5 million nonprofits in the US alone. The choice of WHO to give to is further abstracted by HOW to give. Technology has opened up a myriad of new platforms, and you can donate many things other than dollars to help those less fortunate.

While there is no defined art to giving, like art, giving has to resonate on both a rational and emotional plane. It’s an opus of the head and the heart. My advice to folks like Teddy is to lead with the heart and identify causes that emotionally resonate. And to do good better, align personal desires with what the world actually needs.

Disaster relief vs long-term social change

Do you want to provide transitional shelter to a Nepali family affected by homelessness, or do you want to support the education of the 65 million girls around the world who are not in school? While both are extremely noble causes, you need to provide color to your objectives to ensure your donations have the most impact.

Thoughtful donors will have strategies around giving to humanitarian crises vs global challenges that require a more long-term commitment to drive systemic change.  

If issues such as gender equality, climate change, poverty or universal access to healthcare and education are important to you, then consider supporting organizations that are lobbying for change at a political level.

Don’t underestimate overheads

There are a lot of good charities, but they are not equally good. It’s a common sentiment that people want all of their money to go to the cause, rather than the overhead of the organization.

Let’s reframe this. How can a charitable organization make great decisions and scale without the ability to recruit great leadership talent? How can they rally more support without the funds to advertise and proliferate the message? It costs money to run a successful business, whether that business is for-profit or non-profit. The focus should be on the benefit of the per dollar of expenditures, not the percentage of total revenues being spent on admin costs.

I spoke at the Ignite: Cause Innovation Conference, on the topic of Using Design Thinking to Disrupt Philanthropy. One of my fellow speakers was Dan Pollata, who delivered a great presentation titled ‘The Way we Think about Charity is Dead Wrong’. Check out hisTED Talk on this very topic.  

My favorite quote from this talk is:

“Our generation does not want our epithet to read ‘we kept overheads low’, we want it to say ‘we changed the world’”.

Balancing the head and the heart is important to ensure you don’t get looped into artifice moonlighting as honor. Tap resources such as GuideStar and Charity Navigatorfor information about the organization’s finances and impact records so your giving strategies are picture perfect.

Beyond dollars

There is currency beyond dollars in giving.

You can donate time, physical space, credit card rewards, household items, your hair, blood or social network. You can raise guide dog puppies for the blind, or you can donate art. It is important to understand the tax implications of each, but choice is empowering.

I recently attended a Changemakers Session at Soho House New York with ex-pro surfer, Jon Rose. His charity Waves for Water works on the front line to provide clean drinking water to global communities in need. In alignment with his mantra of “do what you love and help along the way”, he has introduced a Clean Water Courier program. This is a great example of a DIY humanitarian model, where any traveler can pack a few water filtration systems in their suitcase and distribute to local non-profits, community leaders or those directly in need of clean drinking water. The simplicity is beautiful.  

So, while Teddy is yet to decode the works of Jackson Pollock, he has somewhat decoded his giving strategy. He is donating 20% of his philanthropy budget to causes providing emergency shelter to disaster stricken areas and the balance to organizations fighting homelessness caused by extreme poverty.

 "[A canvas is] an arena in which to act" - Jackson Pollock