Meaningful Giving: An interview with Beth Breeze
May 30, 2023 | Rebecca Richards
What prompted you to write Advising Philanthropists?
My research is focused on the complexity of the philanthropy space – how to understand and navigate it. There is far more to private giving for the public good than most people realize, but I also do not want people to feel overwhelmed. There are a lot of choices out there, like who to support and how to do it. Advisers help people navigate that complexity. Despite the growth of the number of philanthropic advisers, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding the career, and I hope to demystify the world of philanthropy advising.
How can a philanthropy adviser help donors give more effectively?
Rationing is the natural state of philanthropy. Nobody can support every good cause, so people have always had to make choices – often between equally worthwhile options. The hope would be that if you have an adviser, you’re being supported to make better choices – better in the sense of being more impactful for society and more meaningful for the donor. An adviser helps donors make those choices by enabling their client to identify and unpack their values, ideals, and hopes for how their money can make a difference.
What do you wish the public knew about the philanthropy sector?
I wish the public were more aware of the positive potential of philanthropy to save and improve lives. No one is obliged to give away anything, and many wealthy people give nothing or only trivial amounts, so it’s frustrating that those who do put their heads above the philanthropic parapet so often get shot down. People relish the cartoon caricatures of big donors as tax-dodging, power-hungry egotists, but that obviously involves unfair generalizations and most often the critique is really about the accumulation of wealth rather than its philanthropic distribution. The general public thinks that if you have money, everyone just dances to your tune, and that is not an accurate representation of the nonprofit sector or the higher education sector. Gifts have to be accepted as well as given, and those responsible for running nonprofits and universities can decide whether or not to accept a gift, for example if they have concerns about the source of wealth being tainted, or if the donor is making unreasonable demands in return for their gift. Philanthropy advisors can support their clients to interact respectfully with potential beneficiaries – for example by avoiding being a burden when visiting projects or not asking for excessive amounts of reporting. So one of my main goals is to shoot down the caricature of irritating big givers, because it’s not fair. You cannot caricature any group of people. They are just people, and within the category of “donor,” there is a whole range of personalities and motivations and so on. Life is always more complicated than stereotypes allow, including in the giving sphere.
Who is the audience for your book?
The first audience is people who are thinking of becoming philanthropy advisers, whether as their main career or those who are already in a professional advising role, like accountants, managers, lawyers, and so on who can incorporate philanthropy into conversations with their clients.
The second audience is other people in the philanthropy space who might work with advisers and have concerns about that—including fundraisers but also nonprofit leaders, grant-makers, and anyone who is thinking, “Who are these people; What are they doing?” We want them to understand what the advising role involves so that they can see them as potential allies, rather than as a barrier that makes reaching donors even harder. Advisers and fundraisers have more in common than they realize. An adviser can be an ally in helping the fundraiser because it is in the adviser’s best interest to put good causes in front of the client.
We know from our work with higher education donors that giving well is harder than it looks. How can nonprofit fundraisers help donors make more meaningful contributions to their organizations?
“Meaningful” is the key word because one thing that we know about philanthropy is that if people do enjoy it and get meaning out of it, then they give more. And without wishing to sound too cheesy, what philanthropy does is it turns money into meaning. That is quite some alchemy, so it is worth taking time over.
No matter how tempting it is to just grab that $100,000 for this year’s target, it is in the fundraiser’s and the institution’s interest to take the time to work with donors. You might discover that a different gift would suit the donor better and still suit the institution. That may turn into a repeat gift or a much bigger gift.
Beth Breeze is the director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. Dr. Breeze has authored and co-edited seven books, launched a master’s program in philanthropic studies, and published extensively in industry journals and media outlets. Her book In Defence of Philanthropy won the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ 2022 AFP/Skystone Partners Prize for Research on Fundraising and Philanthropy. Her most recent book Advising Philanthropists: Principles and Practice, written with Emma Beeston, was released in February of this year.
This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on April 19, 2023.