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Truths from the Philanthropy Trenches

Philanthropy is joyous, life-affirming and noble work, but sometimes it is just plain hard. People and relationships can be tricky, so if philanthropy is based on relationships, why would it be easy all the time?


In addition to the human element, we know generosity is waning. The Generosity Crisis, authored by Brian Crimmins, Mike Ashley and Nathan Chappell, charts some of the current and upcoming challenges while also offering solutions.¹ With so much competition for an individual’s time, attention and dollars, and as the current and future philanthropic environment may not be the environment of abundance as once expected, one might believe the trenches are not a good place.


However, trenches can provide great opportunities for strategizing. They can provide time to regroup and often provide protection from the many barriers we relentlessly face. Protective trenches often demand close quarters with folks who share a common cause or vision while providing a great chance to bond. Those tiny spaces can also provide some hard-won truths.


“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” Amy Poehler

Although we don’t get to spend as much time together as we would like, in honor of March’s International Women’s Day, I spent some time thinking of several women who challenge and inspire me, specifically in sharing their truths learned, sometimes the hard way, in philanthropy. Here are some of those truths from the philanthropy trenches:


“If you want money, ask for advice. If you want advice, ask for money.” –Pam Maroulis, President and Principal Consultant, Accordant

This truth is shared from Michael Colt’s, “Ask for money, and you’ll get advice. Ask for advice, and you’ll get money twice.” Again, this truth is confirmed through a song by Pitbull, “Ask for advice, and get money twice.” This truth rings true in philanthropy. A key twist is that it is always a win if we prioritize connecting with the individual and not the dollars. Our truth is that we can be authentic and help our organizations through relationships as well as donations. If we find like-minded partners to help our organizations grow, let’s not hesitate to ask them for advice. Input from community representatives is valuable, and yes, dollars may follow. We must listen to the advice we get. We must learn what is the donor’s true philanthropic North Star. Then we can determine if a partnership can be built from the information and advice shared, both for the betterment of the community and to accomplish donors’ goals.


“Philanthropists truly want to make the world a better place.” –Lori Counts, Principal Consultant, Accordant

It is not uncommon to experience or witness loyalty giving—gifts to organizations to honor individuals or donations received because it was simply their turn in the long line of nonprofits within their communities. These gifts have a positive transformational impact as donors often use these to make something better. Perhaps it is a better program to honor someone they care about. Maybe it’s a better facility to care for their communities. Perhaps it’s better recognition supporting a cause that is important to them. As we grow our sophistication in philanthropy and focus on segmenting programs and strategies, it is integral that we keep this truth in mind: most people want to make the world a better place and want to have a positive impact on their communities. Through Gallop workplace polling, we know the desire to make an impact is nearly universal.


“You can’t do it alone; allies are more critical than ever before.” –Erin Stitzel, Principal Consultant, Accordant

As philanthropy continues to grow as a profession, folks can fall under the delusion that all of philanthropy relies solely on the development team. I have personally heard in meetings that connecting with the community was “development’s job.” To that I say, “Yes, and…” Stakes are too high and the reward is too great to do this work alone. We have long known the impact of strong board members but let us also remember the impact of partnering with clinicians and other staff member for value well beyond the referral of a name. Physicians, clinicians and other team members likely share the same affinity as our donors. Working together and focusing on the shared affinity—whether it be cancer or pediatric behavioral health—provides the community connection to accelerate and grow philanthropy for our most-needed and strategic health care organization programs.

“Board engagement is a job and a gift and cannot be assumed or taken for granted.” –Cindy Reynolds, Principal Consultant, Accordant

Nonprofit board roles have changed and evolved as quickly as health systems have merged and evolved. Board volunteer leadership is a given. What is not a given is the amount of investment and education required. When we take a moment to engage board members—just as we engage donors—and right-size their roles to something they will enjoy, they become our partners for success. In addition to connecting with board members as individuals and donors, an overall board engagement plan based on treating them as the critical constituent group they are, is warranted. There should be no surprises with leadership roles, term transitions and the expected level of investment in time, talent and dollars. Even the most seasoned philanthropy leader with a long tenure should regularly take a fresh look at the board to right-size members’ engagement for the current environment, challenges and moments in time to position them for successful growth, and dare I say, joy in their roles as board members.


“Collaborative philanthropy is here now and needed now. Donors, foundations, corporations and communities expect it.” –Amy Dorrill, Principal Consultant, Accordant

In the fast-moving world of health care, sometimes the crosswalks and bridges that reflect what our health care organizations do within our walls and in our communities to reduce and even eliminate health inequity often go unseen. To increase health outcomes in our communities, it will take a holistic approach. It will take health care organizations, donors, providers, corporations and other nonprofits coming together strategically and financially to tackle the big challenges. This is what the underrepresented community deserves and what it will take to make a lasting impact. We cannot let the fear of operational red tape hold us back from realizing our organizations’ biggest strategic priorities, which is often the most urgent needs shared with other nonprofits. When we embrace collaborative philanthropy, we can be reminded of Helen Keller’s words, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”


“If you are not using technology to message your prospects and donors in a coordinated and personalized way, please know someone else is already developing a strategy to deepen a relationship with them.” –Molly Davidson, Senior Consultant for Communications, Accordant

We are often protective of our donors and prospects. We care for them and imagine what they may or may not like. We agonize over offending them with our communication choices, too much information or too little. We don’t stop to realize that as individuals, our donors are already masters of filtering out the information they don’t want to see. The sheer volume of messages for any individual keeps increasing, and the retail giants of our world are not shy when they know we need paper towels or shoes through some spooky algorithm.


What if we think about our communications with donors differently? Instead of simply shying away from frequent messaging for fear of being canceled, let’s look at communication as an opportunity to bring increased value through storytelling and purposeful connection. Beautiful, engaging messaging targeted to the right audience may touch our donors’ hearts and minds beyond our expectations. My communications foundation is based on one of my favorite quotes from Sean Gerety, “The technology you use impresses no one. The experience you create with it is everything.”


Now, I conclude with my own truth:

“There is no philanthropy without trust.”

Philanthropy leaders are in the relationship management business. Both internal and external relationships are critical to advancing our mission. Always remember that trust can be broken in an instant and take years to regain. People trust nonprofits to help them accomplish their goals through our organizations. The critical trust circle includes the C-Suite of leaders, board members, clinicians, staff members and beyond. Trust is critical to donors feeling comfortable partnering with us and aligning their values with our priorities. Without trust, we don’t have authentic relationships. Without authentic, trusting relationships, we don’t have philanthropy. One of my favorite quotes by Stephen Covey conveys, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” My truth is that trust is the foundation of relationships and philanthropy.


So, what truths have you learned while in the trenches of philanthropy? We have all learned more lessons and truths than we certainly expected when we set out on our philanthropy leadership journeys. I encourage you to not only embrace these truths shared by my colleagues but also find your own truths to advance philanthropy within the walls of your organization and beyond.



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About the Author: Heather Wiley Starankovic, CFRE, CAP, is a Principal Consultant with Accordant. She remains inspired by all things within health care philanthropy, with a special dedication to supporting and recognizing staff members along with the desire to create programs that keep talented and dedicated servant leaders within the field. You can reach Heather by email at Heather@AccordantHealth.com or by connecting through LinkedIn.


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