Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

December 22, 2008

Charity requires care, clarity, attention

By Todd Cohen

The legal settlement over a gift to Princeton should sound an alarm bell for the giving sector to do its homework better.

Charities and givers alike need to make sure they understand one another, develop relationships rooted in trust, create gifts in terms that are detailed and clear, and make sure their communication is open and ongoing.

Princeton agreed to pay nearly $100 million to settle a lawsuit by the Robertson family, heirs to the A&P supermarket fortune, who argued the university had failed to honor the terms of a gift.

The settlement underscores the need for greater communication between the charity and the giver.

Communication is critical because effective charitable giving represents a complex exchange that depends on trust.

The giver agrees to contribute time, know-how or money to a valued cause, while the charity agrees to put the gift to the use the giver cares about.

For that mutual trust between the giver and the charity to develop, the charity must work hard to cultivate the giver.

Effectiveness in fundraising, as in many other jobs, depends on listening carefully, understanding the giver’s needs, and developing a long-term relationship.

Nonprofits that treat givers like ATM machines may get instant gratification in the form of small contributions but likely will miss the opportunity to develop partnerships that truly engage givers in the organization and generate support that is significant, meaningful and ongoing.

Creating giving relationships requires patience and flexibility; sensitivity to the giver’s needs and values; and attention to detail over how the gift should be handled and tracked, and how its impact should be communicated to the giver.

It also requires healthy skepticism about the giver, as well as brutal honesty about whether the gift truly is a good fit for the charity and not just a source of quick cash to address needs the giver may not care about.

Making or accepting a gift aligns the respective values of the giver and the charity.
It also represents a bargain, and its success depends on the giver and charity each carrying out its responsibilities.

In accepting funds from a giver, the charity must spell out in clear terms how it will use the funds, and then put those funds to that use.

Fundraising is one of the most critical jobs at a nonprofit, and that job requires careful and responsible cultivation and stewardship of givers and their gifts.

It also requires that the giver and charity each do its homework and make sure the gift reflects its respective values and needs.

No giver or charity is perfect, and circumstances that affect gifts can change over time, sometimes in dramatic and unexpected ways.

But charities and givers alike can work a lot harder to better understand one another, develop relationships built on trust, and shape gifts that reflect their respective values and needs.

With the economy in crisis, intensifying social problems and putting even greater stress on nonprofits that work to address those problems, the giving sector needs to be as smart and as effective as it can about fundraising and giving.


  • At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In my teaching at NYU's Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education, I emphasize that it is the responsibility of the FUNDERS to establish expectations and have a clear understanding of their own needs. It isn't fair to the grantee to have to 2nd guess. In my private advising, when this isn't done, it is the greatest cause of funder dissatisfaction. At the same time, potential grantees need to be as brutally honest about themselves, the implications for their organization, and the conditions for any potential grant. AND THEY MUST BE WILLING TO SAY NO. Otherwise, as we see here, and we see too often, they pay the price down the road in inadequately funded projects, in dissatisfied donors, or in inappropriate projects.


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