Thursday, April 23, 2015

Generosity vs. Philanthropy

Close your eyes. No peeking. Now imagine for a moment the person that comes to the top of your mind when I say the word "philanthropist". Got them? Good. Now cement that image right there. Now play along again and close your eyes and imagine the person that comes to the top of your mind when I say the word "generous". No peeking! I'm a betting woman, so I'm going to bet that the two people you pictured were different individuals.

And that's exactly my point today. In our business of fundraising we celebrate and laud the philanthropist. How many of us in our lifetimes will ever become philanthropists in the classic definition? Well, the first strike against us is that we work in the non-profit sector, so based on salary alone, probably not many. But most if not all of us are generous.

This community is one of the most giving, caring sectors out there. We are generous in many ways, with time, resources, advice, and monetarily. So what kind of message are we sending to our donors when we consistently promote philanthropy and what we really mean is generosity. I'm consistently asked how to recognize volunteers not just donors, what if we recognized generosity instead? Yup, I'm asking us to make another shift in the way we think. I've brought you along a journey where I avow that the thank is more important than the ask, now I'm asking you to re-frame your thoughts around what it truly means to give.

I'm not saying that philanthropy and generosity are mutually exclusive, they're not. But the two words evoke completely different connotations. Remember, words matter to our supporters. Transforming your thinking can have wonderful engagement opportunities.

Cook Children's Hospital has, with stunning results. They took their philanthropy report and transformed it into a report on generosity. And folks, it's brilliant. Here it is: It's beautiful, and moving, and the tone of the writing is so donor focused I swoon. So proud of the great people there.

Some of you are going to chalk this up to simple semantics. Ok, I'm cool with that. But words matter, and their context and content matters as well. I strongly believe that the way we discuss our industry needs a radical transformation. One way to do that is to choose our words more carefully. To challenge the norm that we define individuals based on the amount of money they provide us at one finite point in time, not their generous spirit or intent. 

What are your thoughts on this whole generosity vs. philanthropy debate? Is there a debate? How do we involve ourselves in this discussion to benefit those who are most generous to us and the causes we represent. I look forward to your thoughts below.



  1. Great thought for the day! I couldn't agree more and I'll follow you on this journey!

  2. Lynne,
    I think it really comes down to what you celebrate and recognize. If you use the word philanthropist when celebrating the child who comes to donate a jar of pennies to the hospital -- you open people's eyes to the notion that we ALL have it in us to be philanthropists. I try to keep bags of snacks, water, socks and personal hygiene products in my car to give to homeless people who I see standing on the corner. It is a small gesture in terms of dollars and cents -- but in that small way, I am a philanthropist. I think our job as fundraisers and donor relations experts, is to help people realize what can be accomplished through their generosity....and whatever it is....we celebrate it!

  3. Thank you Lynne for inspiring all of us at Cook Children's to think about giving in a whole new way. We must stop and think about our words and how we communicate with one another. There is still a perception that the word philanthropist describes an individual or couple who has made a seven figure gift. When we choose to focus on the person and their generosity, no matter the gift size, transformation happens. Our perception of one another changes. Our work becomes more significant and our actions are noticed. I sat with a gentleman yesterday who is connected to us but will never be able to make a seven figure gift. He said to me "You have my heart" and that is the biggest gift I can give you. So true. Here's to transforming the way we think about our donors.

    1. Jennifer,
      It is my pleasure to help Cook Children's you all have truly embraced the responsibility of the attitude of gratitude. You all have my heart.

  4. Wonderful post today. Thank you!

  5. I love this as my VP and I debate constantly about the word "generous." She won't let us use them in acknowledgement letters because she argues 'what if the gift amount is not generous to the donor' to which I counter, 'the donor made the gift because they thought of us for some reason, that is in fact generous of them." We've compromised on the word "thoughtful" and thank donors for their thoughtful gifts.

    Also, statistically, those in lower income brackets, on a percentage basis, are more generous with their dollars and time, but because of the perceived "value" are not the ones who get recognized in the limelight because their value is considered "philanthropic." So totally wrong in so many ways!

    Thanks Lynne!

    1. Robin,
      You're dead on. I don't miss those debates about words. If you ask donors, it is usually an act of generosity that drives them. Keep it up and fight the good fight.