The Art of Giving: Where the soul meets a business plan

Book Review
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Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 276pp. Hardback ISBN 978-0-470-50146-7 £19.99

The foreword to this book, written by James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, notes that philanthropy is universal, potent and can make the world a better place, yet it is little understood by society at large and even by donors themselves. This book attempts to rectify that situation by explaining what philanthropy is, how it works and how it feels to be a philanthropist. The authors are more than qualified for the task – Charles Bronfman is the funder and founder of a major philanthropic foundation whilst Jeffrey Solomon is president of that foundation, and both have undertaken a range of other philanthropic duties, including chairing boards and teaching philanthropy. They wrote this book to offer ‘candid, clear advice’ to donors, and an underlying theme is that philanthropy makes serious demands on donors’ time, intellect, feelings and attention, as well as demands on their bank accounts. The book is also intended to help fundraisers understand and talk to potential donors, by giving an ‘insider account’ of being on the receiving end of their asks.

The authors insist there is no right or wrong way to ‘do philanthropy’: what matters is how donors want to proceed and that they are successful in finding “the exact spot in the philanthropic universe where [they] want to be”. Whilst this donor-centric perspective may occasionally seem at odds with the professed goal of teaching readers how to be ‘street-smart, effective philanthropists’, it makes it a useful read for those working within charities because it provides revealing insights into the experience and outlook of wealthy donors. For example, it documents the co-existence of an impulse to give money away with genuine bafflement about how to do so, given the opaque and impenetrable nature of the non-profit world. Charities may believe themselves to be welcoming and accessible, but each charity is a complex organism involving traditions, instincts, habits, and a tangle of personalities of the founders, staff and trustees, that can leave donors mystified.

Despite an inclination towards language that repels us less-sentimental Brits (such as the suggestion that philanthropy is ‘nourishment for the soul’), this book treads a fair line between inspiring donors and providing practical advice. It contains c.40 pages of useful resources, it enumerates the different sorts of things that donors can fund (from advocacy campaigns and marketing budgets to the decidedly non-sexy but essential support of a charity’s infrastructure), and it doesn’t just tell donors to ‘do due diligence’ but provides a list of questions that can help determine if they are backing the right horse.

This pragmatic approach extends to plain speaking advice for potential philanthropists. For example the decision whether to support an existing charity or set up a new organisation – which greatly vexes fundraisers striving to bring new money into ‘old’ organisations – is viewed as a question over the ‘hassle factor’: is it easier to write a cheque and deal with a potentially unpredictable partner or will it be simpler in the long-run to build something new, despite the start-up costs? Similarly the pros and cons of accepting a seat on a charity’s board are laid out with refreshing candour: other board members might resent someone who ‘buys’ a place so donors are cautioned to consider the ‘price of membership’ and to rely on the strength of their ideas, not the size of their gift. Indeed, a whole section is devoted to ‘How to Be a Trustee – and How Not To’, which could provide a useful starting point for discussions within many UK boards.

The weakest section of this book is a typology of donors which claims to be non-judgemental (the chapter is perkily entitled ‘Donors come in all types’), yet the order in which the types are described and discussed occurs on a clear spectrum, from The Non Donor and The Reluctant Donor, via The Passive and Self-promoting Donor to the pièce de résistance of The Strategic Donor. I’m not sure why Bronfman and Solomon are so wary of acknowledging that this latter type is better, given their book is devoted to encouraging them, but fortunately the rest of the text demonstrates a far greater courage in the authors’ convictions. A notably bold chapter, ‘The Face in the Mirror’ more than justifies the price of the book. It begins by noting: “No man is a hero to his valet… and no donor is a pure unadulterated blessing to his grantee either”. Donors are warned that “the power of money [can] bend even the most sensible people out of shape” and are encouraged to treat the people and organisations they fund with respect by, for example, paying pledges promptly and giving fair warning if they don’t intend to renew a gift. Donors are also warned not to meddle in matters outside their concern, which can amount to ‘extortion in reverse’ (“I’ve given you this money. Now do what I say”). Showing even-handedness in doling out criticism, the authors accuse charities and fundraisers of sometimes treating their donors like ATMs (cash machines) and viewing rich people as ‘prospects’ instead of ‘precious people’.

Despite such asides directed at those working in the philanthropy sector, this book is mostly concerned with speaking truth to rich people who want to be thoughtful and effective givers. However big their cheque, donors are reminded that they will always be outnumbered by the staff and board members. The authors sagely warn that: “For a donor, money does not buy everything. He needs to recognise that just because he has made a substantial contribution to the non-profit, he does not own it.” The authors’ honest reflection on being a wealthy donor includes sharing of philanthropic failure, one example the result of forgetting “that we were just the donor… It’s the peril of being rich”. Perhaps being rich did lead to that particular failure, but being rich and willing to write about it and the experience of being asked for money is a great gift.

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