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A NY Time Business Section article recently described donor-advised funds as “a trendy philanthropic loophole.”

While the article focused on the tax benefits and timing of setting up a donor-advised fund after a tech company goes public, the larger issue – of appearing to be public-spirited without losing control of your money – was only barely mentioned.

Setting up a donor-advised fund is, often but not always, a way to feel that one is doing good – without committing to a single social issue or cause. 

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A $1 million commitment to scaling a promising youth entrepreneurship program. $500,000 to fund mentoring for those recently released from prison. A $75,000 grant – one of 10 – awarded for scholarships to a summer science education institute.

These are the kinds of initiatives appealing to new philanthropists – those termed “high and ultra-high net worth donors.”

It’s easy enough to research the “what” of these donors – what they give to. But that’s after the fact. How can we figure out the “why” – and from that, understand how to position our nonprofits in this sphere?

A new study released in late November by The Philanthropy Workshop gives some clues.

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A lot has been written about David Rockefeller’s philanthropic legacy in light of his death last week at the age of 101. From support for local community improvement projects to investing in NYC’s major civic institutions, Mr. Rockefeller’s giving totaled an estimated $2 billion over his lifetime.

David Rockefeller worked hard to transmit what a New York Times article characterized as his family’s philosophy of giving – humility, responsibility, and engagement – through various charitable vehicles. Under this philosophy, we owe a common debt to each other, and much is expected of those who receive.

But while Mr. Rockefeller championed appreciation-fueled giving, his philanthropic interests reveal a deeper motivation than simply giving back. 

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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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The Tin Cup Syndrome – standing by the side of the road looking pitiful, hoping someone will respond.

When fundraising feels like this, no wonder board members (and staff, and friends) shy away!

What would it take to turn it around?

To help our board members (and ourselves, to be honest) to see fundraising as an offering – to the giver?

To see the value we provide, not only to our clients and our communities, but to our donors…and how we help them fulfill their commitment to be the kind of person who leaves the world a better place? 

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