Anonymous giving or strategic giving?

4 January 2011

This guest blog comes from Jacob Burak. Jacob founded Evergreen Ventures in 1987 and became one of the founding fathers of the Israeli Venture Capital community. He is the former Chairman of Maala – Business for Social Responsibility, a leading non-profit organisation to spearhead social change in Israeli society. He is also active in Round-up Israel and Midot, two non-profit organisations aiming to develop and increase efficiency of philanthropy in Israel. Jacob is also a bestselling author.

The declared intent to publish a list of contributions made by the richest members of Israeli society is bound to provoke a public discourse and, probably, public outcry.  But, like this article, it is not meant to point an accusing finger at those who fail to make donations but rather to encourage everyone to take part in the necessary societal changes in a society that has managed to create levels of inequality unprecedented in a nation of its age.  Still, money is only partly what is needed.

There is an Arabic proverb that says “If you have a lot, give from your wealth; if you have but little, give from your heart.”  However, many of those who ‘have a lot’ possess an additional asset: their business acumen and experience.  Nonprofit organizations tend to be lacking in two key spheres: the assessment of risks involved in realizing their goals and, mainly, scalability – the ability to repeat small-scale successes on a larger scale through expanded activity.  These are precisely the skills that businesspeople bring to the arena and, when added to a monetary contribution, create a winning combination that is capable of fomenting true change.

Those who believe that publicizing the size of the contribution does not advance the anticipated outcome will find additional food for thought in studies that confirm that the size of people’s contributions is, in many ways, the result of comparing themselves to other donors, from contributors to telethons to the wealthy at various gala fundraising events.

The traditional approach that promotes anonymous giving does not relate to strategic philanthropy that is aimed at real social change.  Emotional giving has always existed and will continue to do so.  The adoption of a humble way of life and the fear of embarrassing the recipient of a donation are the fundaments of the moral commandment to give anonymously.  But a modest approach is no longer suited to social change of the proportions discussed here.  When a society encourages its wealthy and generous citizens to step forward and speak openly about their social giving activities, the effect is more than simply encouraging others to give more; it challenges the assumption that we are all creatures motivated by self-interest (though of course it is possible to identify self-interest in charitable activities as well).  The challenge is not in reshaping people to be altruistically motivated but in redefining self-interest: a society that is equal is one whose members are bound to one another by acknowledging that mutual responsibility is the only guarantee for a safe and healthy life.