Focused charitable investment can put you in the room with the decision-makers.

Focused charitable investment can put you in the room with the decision-makers.

I closed my last post with a comment that, by focusing, “Sarita and I have been able to ensure . . . that our (charitable investments) actually do ‘make a difference.'”

How can that be true?

For a number of reasons. But in this post I want to talk about being in the room with the decision-makers and those who make things happen.

I was thinking I would say something in the title of this post about “influence”: “Focused Giving Maximizes Influence.” But I realized that such a title could readily give the wrong impression: that one might give to an organization for the purpose of acquiring inappropriate influence over it or for the sake of gaining personal benefits. And that is not what I have in mind in the least.

The longer I thought about it, the more I realized what I am really talking about is access: opportunity for interfacing not only with those “in the know” about the organization, but those who make things happen–i.e., make the things happen that you want to see happen, or, ensure, to the extent possible, that the cause for which you are committing your resources actually gets fulfilled! You become a valued partner in a very much deeper sense than you are when you simply toss a few dollars in the organization’s direction.


Sarita and I wanted to give to the organizations we care about because we believed in their stated missions and the general methods they use to achieve their stated goals. We wanted–and want–nothing to do with moving them away from these things.

When I talk about “influence” or “access to those who make things happen,” I am speaking of the opportunity to dig into an organization’s inner workings a bit. To ask questions. To make suggestions that we believe might be helpful to the organization in achieving its goals. To know that our questions and concerns are taken seriously.

So when I speak of focused givers’ ability “to ensure . . . that our charitable investments actually do ‘make a difference,'” the first thing I am talking about is a kind of “trust but verify” function or, as I put it up top, “being in the room with the decision-makers.”

When you focus your investments, no one is going to look askance if you ask to speak with the president of the organization, or the board members, or senior staff members. In fact, the organization is likely to ask you to meet with these people. Because they are at least as motivated to demonstrate to you what a quality organization they have as you are motivated to ensure that they are every bit as good as what you think they might be.

And when you have access to the board members; when you can talk with senior staff members face to face and ask any question you want: you can quickly acquire a strong sense of whether they are trying to “put something over on you” or are telling you the truth. You know whether they are being open or attempting to cover something.

(Sarita’s and my experience: with the organizations we support, we have never seen anyone attempt to cover anything. Even the most difficult, potentially embarrassing questions have been answered forthrightly: “That is a problem. And here’s what we are doing about it. . . . Do you have any further suggestions or ideas?”)

Now, I have no question that Sarita and I receive a bit more attention than we would if we gave smaller sums of money. But, honestly, based on our experience moving up the “ladder” of giving, and having now served on the boards of two of the agencies to which we have committed ourselves (and I on the board of a third agency before Sarita and I made our commitment to engage in a narrower focus), I can assure you, it doesn’t require a whole lot of dollars and cents to “gain access” to and be taken seriously by those in leadership.

It has appeared to me that the leaders of well-run non-profits are far more concerned about listening to those who have demonstrated a consistent positive interest in the organization and a desire to help the organization pursue its stated goals than they are about how much money you give.

If you think only of the high-profile, multi-billion and multi-$100-million charities (the United Ways, Red Crosses, American Cancer Societies, Goodwills, and so forth), then, no, unless you are a million-dollar-plus donor, I imagine your contributions, whether in time or money, are likely to go relatively unnoticed.

But I’m not suggesting you invest in those kinds of enterprises.

I’m talking about investing in any of the numerous highly effective organizations with annual budgets more in the $500,000 to $10 million or even $25 million range.

I can assure you, when you give $5,000 to one of these organizations, you are part of a very select group of donors! Even a gift of $1,000 is likely to pop a few eyeballs. And if you are able to give $25,000 to $50,000, you will be a member of a very select group, indeed.

Now, please understand. I am not at all suggesting you should give in order to gain influence. That is not my point. Rather, my point is that when you give at these levels, you will have the opportunity for influence . . . if you want it.

Again. Please understand. I’m not suggesting that you donate so you can ask them to change their mission to match your special interests. That should never be your purpose in giving. Rather, you want to align yourself–or, rather, ally yourself–with an agency that is already committed to doing what you are passionately committed to seeing done!

You’re not coming alongside such an organization in hopes of shifting their purpose or direction. You are coming alongside to lend a hand, to be–using the very terms you will often see these organizations use to refer to someone like you: you are coming to be a supporter, a backer, a partner, a true member of the team.

Oh, yes, you will see such phrases used in reference to those who are less committed. But I think there is no doubt in anyone’s mind about the differences.

If you show interest in how the organization operates, what internal controls they have in place, their policies and practices, their strategic, mission-oriented initiatives, future fundraising opportunities, and so forth; if, when they come to you with a giving proposal, you can say, openly, honestly, with no hesitation: “Thank you for this investment opportunity!”–even if you follow it immediately with a statement of regret that you won’t be able to take part this time, or not at the level suggested, or, “I think there has been a misunderstanding. What we are really interested in funding is ____. And I don’t see how your proposal matches that interest on our part”–the agency will view you, every bit, as a true partner. Unless it becomes clear that your interests really aren’t aligned with what the organization is trying to do. But in that case, you will realize you need to find another organization to support.

I can assure you, at least if you are dealing with a quality organization (as Sarita and I are convinced “our” organizations are), your questions, comments and suggestions will not be ignored!

If the organization is large enough, when you make a $5,000 gift: you will be assigned a specific person to interface with you and ensure you have whatever information you require to feel comfortable not only with you one-time donation, but, hopefully, to make future donations as well. When you start giving in the $10,000 to $25,000 range, you are likely to receive invitations to “insider” informational weekend seminar/fundraisers where you will get to question staff members and executives to your heart’s content.

I remember the first such weekend event I attended. The president of the organization and his chief aids realized I had some deep and serious questions for which I wanted answers–questions of a variety, I was told, very few if any of their other donors had ever asked.

They replied as openly as possible, with promises to get back to me with the information they were unable to provide on the spot. (And they fulfilled those promises.)

Rather than being offended at my temerity for asking such questions, they showed genuine admiration, respect, and gratefulness that I was willing to push them in areas where they could benefit from the push, but where no one had pressed them before.

“We need people like you!” they exclaimed.

I want to hold out before you: when you are focused, people will pay attention to you, and you’ll pay attention to them.

And that’s partially why Sarita and I ended up on the boards of two of the organizations to which we have committed ourselves.

And the result, we believe, has been benefits for both the agencies and us. We have learned much by serving on these agencies’ boards. And they have acquired useful input from us.

In sum: Focused giving to small- to medium-sized charities will give you access to and influence upon those who are seeking to achieve the very thing(s) you believe need to be done. It will enable you to “trust but verify.” It will give you the opportunity to provide useful input into their work as they pursue the goals you are delighted they are pursuing. And, potentially, you may find that you have much to learn, yourself, that you would have learned in no other way!

Next time: Special (non-monetary) contributions.