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7 Deadly Sins of Philanthropy

The business of philanthropy is hard work. Navigating the charitable sector and laying out a plan that creates measurable change takes time and sometimes we hit roadblocks. These obstacles are heightened when we fall into the traps of the “7 Deadly Sins of Philanthropy.”

What are these sins? We reached out to a few experts in the field of philanthropy, fundraising and charity management to get their perspectives on the Seven Deadly Sins that face organizations and philanthropists when negotiating a partnership and creating lasting positive impact.

Bloody hand streaking down a frosted glass windowThe Seven Deadly Sins of Philanthropy

1. The Sin of Being Inauthentic

Values. We all have them. How often do we review them though? And how often do we align our giving decisions with them? If you’re not giving in alignment with your values, you may be committing the sin of being inauthentic! When I work with clients, one of the first things I do is help them articulate their values. This process provides such an important foundation for giving. It’s also a great reminder of what matters most to us—family, leadership, integrity, compassion for example. I know for myself, when I give in alignment with my values, I feel more excited and engaged, like I’m truly making an impact. When you give in alignment with your values, you’ll receive the full benefit and joy of giving. When I don’t give in this way, I feel very disconnected from the gift and organization, like I’m not being authentic. It really doesn’t feel good. You may have given gifts like this before too. Plus, when we have articulated our values and clearly identified issues that matter to us, it makes saying no to requests that don’t align with who we are and how we want to make a difference in the world that much easier. This allows more opportunity for our gifts of time, talent, treasure, or ties to go to the things we care about the most.

Deborah Goldstein, Principal, Enlightened Philanthropy

2. The Sin of Not Listening to our YouthAsin boy with round black rimmed glasses in a school library

Not putting young people at the centre of decision-making when funding youth focused programming is definitely a deadly sin of philanthropy. It is easy to see youth engagement as an ‘add on’ that is nice to do, rather than viewing young people as essential partners in decision-making. Our research has shown that young people are society’s untapped ‘innovation engine’. Young people, especially when they work in the context of supportive intergenerational collaborations, are the bold problem solvers we need to help us find solutions to the complex problems we all face. When we meaningfully engage young people in decision-making we not only have a better understanding of the kinds of programming they want and need, our organizations also become more innovative, agile and future focused.

Ilona Dougherty, Managing Director, Youth & Innovation Project, University of Waterloo – https://uwaterloo.ca/youth-and-innovation/

3. The Sin of Omission

How often have you heard that 100% of the funds you provide go to the program? Have you paused to consider how general overhead is being managed if not from donation dollars? Unless the organization you support has a profit-driven social venture as part of its business model, in all likelihood there is a portion of your donation going to General & Administration. The G&A line and/or overhead expenses differs from charity to charity so it is your responsibility to ask questions about how funds are applied. How sustainable is the organization if 100% of goes to the program without supporting the general operations of the organization. Organizations that invest in their operational effectiveness are more likely to hit their impact targets than organizations that do not invest in the operational management of the agency (Jim Collins – Good to Great for the Social Sector). This might reflect in higher overhead expenses, but it will also show in their success metrics year-over-year. As a funder, do you want to be funding problems or finance solutions?

For more on evaluating charities and bench-marking check out the blog, “It’s More than just the Flow of Money.”

Arched hallway with books lining the walls4. The Sin of Failure to Access Deep Knowledge (or “Failure to go Deep”)

I will never forget a training session I was doing in Paris when a young fundraiser declared with absolute certainty that all she needed to know, before doing a major donor ask, was “how to ask … what words to use”.   She said that is what her boss told her. The shock of hearing that attitude expressed with such naive bravado, has stuck with me for more than a decade. Shallow knowledge, will give you access to shallow pockets. It is ONLY through deep knowledge of your cause, deep knowledge of your donor (and I will argue, deep knowledge of self) that will you access to deep pockets.

Tony Myers, Myers & Associates

5. The Sin of Willful Blindness

Willful Blindness is choosing to look the other way when you know your actions are leading to a negative ripple effect. “Cases of willful blindness aren’t about hindsight. They feature contemporaneous information that was available but ignored. While it’s tempting to pillory individual villains, the causes are more often systemic and cultural. There are many reasons –psychological, social and structural — why we don’t see what we most need to notice. None of them provides an alibi or an excuse.” (Willful Blindness: When a Leader Turns a Blind Eye – Ivey Business Journal) There is a ripple effect with philanthropy because organizations do not operate in a vacuum. Complex social problems, by their very nature, have a push-pull relationships with agencies addressing the same and similar problems, with government bodies and the private sector. By not considering the externalities and choosing to ignore information because it contradicts your ideology puts you, your foundation, and the charities you want to support at risk.

6. The Sin of False Collaboration

Too often we receive funding requests from charities that state that they are working in partnership with other organizations, yet when we do the due diligence on what that means to those other Page of dictionary with the definition of Collaborationorganizations we find that the idea of partnership or collaboration is not equally shared amongst the requesting organization and those that have been listed as partners. From a funder’s perspective real collaboration means that you are designing the solution, and the funding request that goes along with that solution, with the agencies and with the funder.

The latest issue of the Karma & Cents newsletter highlights the value of collaboration.

7. The Sin of Silence (or not Sharing Your Philanthropic Journey)

When we walk families through the Social Impact Lab we build into the design a feedback loop. This is a critical component to the Lab because it allows for information to be shared out into the community.  Too often funders don’t want to talk about the projects that they invested in that didn’t work, which means that organizations can continue to ask for funding for problems instead of working with funders to finance solutions. By not sharing your philanthropic journey others cannot learn from you. It also makes it harder for your Next of Kin to execute on some of your social objectives because the values and driving motivations were not shared.

I am sure there are several other “Deadly Sins of Philanthropy.” Please add your thoughts to the discussion.

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