Wealthy philanthropists need to ‘fight their egos’ to make giving successful, report warns

Wealthy philanthropists need the humility to adapt their giving and accept the communities they want to help are more knowledgeable about how support can best be delivered, a report is suggesting.

The findings have emerged in the report Meaningful Philanthropy in the 21st Century: The Role of Self, published by the Institute of Sustainable Philanthropy.

The research found that “philanthropy will be more sustainable” when it is meaningful for both the donor and the community being supported.

High end donors interviewed told researchers that they “came to recognise the importance of listening to community voices and having the humility to recognise that the community members were best placed to know what they needed and found meaningful”, according to the report.

“We would encourage those new to philanthropy to be open to acting in different ways to those originally envisaged,” recommends the report.

“Doing so can be critical to building trust, and as has been highlighted in many of our cases, for success to be experienced to the fullest, that success must be shared.

“The community must jointly own the agenda, and as we have seen, it may be necessary to fulfil additional need that a community deems priorities.”

According to the Institute it “can be understandably difficult for entrepreneurs who have led hugely successful businesses using their own leadership, management and problem-solving skills, to then give up control of their philanthropy to a community”.

“Many of the philanthropists interviewed described fights with their egos as they attempted to reshape their relationships with their focal communities.

“Any surface-level effort to convince them to give up control has little chance of success because it fundamentally goes against who they are.”

It adds that “where interviewees recognised the need to give up control, they were able to do so by ceding a part of their identity to the community and allowing themselves to become part of its collective”.

More 'impactful' giving

Institute of Sustainable Philanthropy co-director Professor Adrian Sargeant said better partnership working between donors and communities they are supporting “can make philanthropy significantly more personally meaningful, and of course, impactful for the focal community”.

“Philanthropy has been frequently criticised for imposing solutions on communities and giving primacy to the needs of donors,” he said.

“We share these concerns and offer additional evidence from psych science for why this kind of approach is misguided.

“However, rather than focusing entirely on communities and diverting attention from donor needs, our research also suggests that it may be more fruitful to develop a concomitant focus on donors and understanding who the person behind the giving is.

“What matters is not whether the community’s needs or the donors’ needs that are served by philanthropy, per se. Rather, what matters is how serving the community’s needs, that it has itself identified, can become an integral part of who donors are.”

Jen Shang, who is also Institute co-director added: “Philanthropists should certainly take impact on the focal community into account. But at the same time, the impact on philanthropists should also be considered.

“It isn’t always intuitive to do this, yet as our research shows, ignoring the impact on the philanthropist can hamper both participation in giving and its ultimate sustainability.”

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