July 2018: Guest Post on Helping Friends Learn How to Give

This month, The Philanthropologist features a guest post aimed at fundraising and grantmaking professionals who are struggling to answer questions about philanthropy from friends, family, and colleagues.  Our guest writer, Sarah Brandywine Johnson, is a Senior Research Analyst in the Alumni Relations and Development office at the University of Chicago; she previously served the University as an analyst and project manager.

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By Sarah Brandywine Johnson, Senior Research Analyst, University of Chicago

It’s a question I get a dozen times a year, usually around the holidays or after major disasters, and you might get it too: “Hey, you work in philanthropy. Where can I give that will have the most positive impact?”

Oh, the internal conflict that follows. It’s tough to explain the myth of “the best gift,” the debate surrounding charitable giving metrics, and the necessity of paying for overhead costs for any nonprofit, all before someone’s eyes glaze over.

So how do you answer? What’s the best way to guide a well-meaning friend with an open wallet to a nonprofit that will accomplish their goals? You can always recommend where you yourself are giving, but where you give and where your friend wants to give may not always be a good match.

Well, people can hold about three things in their memory before they need to take notes, so I try to boil it down to three simple ideas:

  1. You have to do a little research.
  2. You have to have perspective about your impact.
  3. You might have to adjust your goals.


As a colleague of mine once said, “There is no Fix Everything Charitable Fund.” If you want to start giving, you have to know what kind of gift you want to make. If someone wants to help out in the aftermath of a disaster, that’s a no-brainer, right? But they still need to think about how they want to help. Infrastructure rebuilding? Immediate relief? Long-term relief? All of these are valid — people who will need homes in a year’s time and a safe place to sleep in a week’s time need food today, as well.

It’s tough to tell people they have to do their homework, but for me that’s vital: when you know what you want to do, you have to work out how to do it, and that requires research. It doesn’t have to take hours; we’re lucky enough to live in an information age where that data’s pretty easy to come by. I like to drop in the fact that this is so important that the Rockefeller Foundation used to offer classes in being a wealthy philanthropist (now they just have a consulting firm for it).

If you want to maximize your giving, you have to do the work. But it’s also important, before you do, that you ask yourself how vital it is to press every ounce of philanthropy out of every dollar.


We know, but sometimes our friends don’t, that there’s a reason they call it “major” giving. An individual giving $20, even $20 a month, is going to have difficulty moving the needle. Even high-impact campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge involved a mass movement and a lot of wealthy donors. And because it takes longer and more effort to process thousands of ten-dollar gifts than one ten-thousand-dollar gift, you may not have as much control over where your money goes. It might even go to…THE DREAD ADMINISTRATIVE OVERHEAD.

(It’s good to remind your friends, if this comes up, that your salary comes from administrative overhead costs.)

But when we talk about impact we often forget to include the most important lesson. We’re not telling people that their smaller gift is inherently less efficient for the fun of it. We want to make a point: that giving based on impact and efficiency isn’t as naturally great a goal as one might think. It’s good to find a solid organization to give to, but your research isn’t going to find you somewhere perfect — it’s just going to find you somewhere good. So how do our philanthropically-minded friends quantify their goals, if perfect efficiency can’t be one of them?


Resetting our goals is difficult, and it’s even harder to reset someone else’s. So when I say efficiency should not be the primary aim of giving, I try to replace it with a gentler and, I think, more fun suggestion: the goal of building a relationship with a nonprofit.

It’s so much easier to find a nonprofit you want to support if you’re looking at it from a relationship standpoint. A lot of people don’t want to receive constant solicitations from a place they gave to once, but reframing it as a two-way street seems to help people consider that they might want to give more than once — that they can feel ongoing satisfaction from interacting with their chosen beneficiary, learning about the organization and following the good work it does. You can’t always say what you want from an efficient organization, but you can say what you want from a relationship: support, communication, transparency, happiness.

Study after study shows that philanthropic giving provides a sense of satisfaction, especially if the donor feels appreciated and engaged. People can open that door with a single gift that forges a new relationship: to an organization that piques their interest, that makes giving easy, and that provides them with ongoing communication about their cause. As a bonus, when you build a relationship with a nonprofit, you learn about who their people are and whether they’re stewarding your giving well, which helps you to make better philanthropic decisions. You can become a more efficient and educated donor simply by making friends with your nonprofit of choice.

So when people ask me where to give, I say three things. I ask them where they want to focus and suggest a few search keywords; I remind them that finding perfection is as impossible in giving as it is in life; and then I say, “Find somewhere you can make friends, give them ten bucks, and see what happens.”

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