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A recent New York Times article focused on localized micro-philanthropy – small grants targeted to a specific need in a pinpointed geographic area.

“Bite-sized largesse,” the article called the phenomenon. For example, a $1,000 grant for a volunteer fire department to purchase a device to detect gas leaks.

One might think a grant that narrowly focused is equally limited in impact. But on the contrary, these type of hyper-specific grants provide multiple rewards, as they connect donors to place. By defining the exact impact their contribution will have, a local philanthropist can easily understand how their donation matters.

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Donors love the tried and true.

Donors are tired of the same old, same old.

Both are true – in the abstract. But how do you know when it’s time to shake up your direct appeal, dinner dance, annual donor cultivation event?

And, even if donors are telling you this loud and clear – declining donations, impossible to get a committee together, decreased attendance – how do you know what changes will be positively received, and what will be decried as a “change in tradition”?

The simple answer is – ask them. 

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The stories we tell.

In our efforts to give our boards the whole picture, are we shrouding the truth? Are we showering them with minutiae, ensuring their attention is fixed on the weeds?

How many numbers blur the fiscal trends?

What amount of donation data hides the full picture?

How many program factors obscure the real impact?

How much detail is too much? MORE

b2ap3_thumbnail_forest-through-trees.jpgIt’s an art form, communicating with board members so they understand enough to engage in meaningful dialogue about the organization’s trajectory.

They need to know the environment in which the organization functions – the political and economic context – but if you give them too many acronyms, their heads spin. Staff lives with this information every day, sees it play out in multiple spheres – but board members drop in, once a month or even just once a quarter.

What do they need to know to be meaningful board members? To do their duty to the mission?

Fiduciary is actually the easiest of the board duties to communicate about, but even there too much detail invites board members to ask why postage is going up instead of whether staff salaries are competitive enough to recruit and retain the best personnel.

Fundraising, too, is not hard for board members to grasp – but if they’re asked to look at the entire donation list, they’ll fixate on donor A or donor B, not the overall trends of why people give and how we can boost the activity of our star askers.

Program, ah, there’s the hard one. Give board members every program stat and watch their eyes glaze over. But the other extreme, of parading clients at board meetings to hear their individual stories and explaining impact by anecdotes, doesn’t help board members make the right judgment calls about meeting mission effectively given the resources at hand.

And finally – governance. What should the board be looking at to assess if it’s doing its job? How many times the board meetings meet quorum matters, of course, but that’s a bottom line measure, not a best practice to strive for.

As with all communication, the primary question is not “What do I have to tell them?” – it’s “What do I want them to do with this information?”

That determines what information is needed, and at what level.

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Why do we self-sacrifice to help others in distress?

The social science term for this is “costly altruism” – doing something for another that comes at a cost to ourselves.

(Like, spending our money to help someone else’s child, not our own.)

At a panel on the Psychology Of Philanthropy at NYU’s Heyman Center last week, cognitive neuroscientist Oriel Feldmanhall weighed in on the importance of the “warm glow” of giving – and how the emotional satisfaction engendered by doing good for others feeds on itself, to produce more and more altruistic behavior.

In other words, getting someone to do good for others – even a small act – can make them feel so pleasant they’ll do more.

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Last week’s NY Times article on a restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey that’s allowing customers to set their own price for their meals raises an interesting question about soliciting donations.

What is a donation – an investment, in essence, in impact or in honoring the relationship with the asker – really worth to the donor?

And what happens when we let the donor direct that, in the process of being asked for a gift?

Will we get more, less, or the same? 

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