From The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 24, 2021

As America begins to reopen and the economic forecast brightens, many people in the nonprofit world are hoping that after the tumult of the past year, we are about to usher in a permanent change in the way donors give.

After all, we’ve seen foundations and very wealthy individuals take more risks and provide the flexible, multiyear funding nonprofits have long sought. At the other end of the donor spectrum, a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey found that giving to well-known megacharities skyrocketed in 2020, powered by smaller donors.

Little has been said, however, about the habits of midlevel donors — and yet they are the ones who have the potential to provide the steady stream of dollars nonprofits need to ensure that our recovery leads to real and lasting change. Training our sights on people who earn $100,000 to $200,000 a year — about one-fifth of Americans — is especially important given recent forecasts that suggest many wealthy donors are already returning to their old ways as the pandemic recedes.

Development officers have long known that people at those income levels may represent only a small percentage of an organization’s supporters but give an outsize amount of money. They also are prime candidates for making significant gifts following a financial windfall or through bequests.

Still, the lack of data about their giving patterns and motivations has stalled cultivation efforts. To fill that gap, I worked with Cal Halvorsen, assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work, to commission a study of 1,260 Americans age 35 and older who gave a total of $2,000 to $20,000 in 2019. People filled out the survey in April 2020, a month into the pandemic, responding to questions about their giving in 2019.

Our respondents gave a higher share of their income (1.9 percent) than the national average — and an impressive 40 percent of those earning under $100,000 (41 percent of our sample) gave more than $5,000 to charity in 2019.

Many fundraisers consider gifts of $10,000 to be a significant threshold; 38% of those who earned $100,000 to $200,000 (44 percent of our sample) exceeded this amount in 2019.

Almost all the donors had maintained or increased their giving levels over the past five years. More than half of those giving more than $10,000 annually had increased their giving in 2019.

Our donors are loyal: When asked about their most significant gift of 2019, more than two-thirds had been supporting the same organization for more than five years. Nearly two in five said their satisfaction with their giving was a “10 out of 10” (four in five gave a score ranging from 8 to 10). Moreover, 88 percent would give even more if their satisfaction levels increased even further. And most would allocate a portion of any future financial windfall to charity.

Lack of Focus on Effectiveness

Generosity and loyalty are extremely important, but it’s crucial to ensure that donors are steering their money to the organizations that are making a difference.

Yet we discovered a disquieting disconnect between midlevel donors’ high satisfaction levels and their knowledge about the actual impact of their donations. Respondents strongly believe the organizations they support should “do a good job of demonstrating effectiveness,” show “good leadership,” “meaningfully engage with the individuals and communities [they] serve,” and “identify real opportunities to make change.” But they do not apply these criteria to their own philanthropic decision making.

Given how much time individuals generally spend researching big-ticket purchases likes electronics and vacations, we could assume that midlevel donors spend equivalent amounts of time learning more about the organizations they are supporting with gifts of similar value. Yet two-thirds of our respondents spent less than an hour on research before donating, and one-third spent less than 15 minutes. Only a third compared charities before giving. Even in the highest annual donation category of $20,000, well over half spent less than an hour studying where to give. And fully a third of respondents were not aware of the impact of the principal organization they supported.

Those midlevel donors who bothered to conduct research relied on the organization’s website (60 percent), online searches (48 percent), information from family or friends (43 percent), or charity evaluation websites such as Charity Navigator and Candid’s GuideStar service (38 percent). But almost two-thirds did not contact organizations (even among the largest donors, who gave more than $15,000, only 61 percent made contact). When we asked why, close to half said they simply “knew they wanted to support the organization.”

Indeed, half the midlevel donors said “a lot” or “all” their giving went to charities with which they had a personal relationship. So, if personal relationships replace due diligence, would volunteering lead to more interest in understanding impact? Most of our donors volunteered at least once per year, half at least once a month, and almost a quarter at least once a week. But there was no correlation between volunteering and more thoughtful giving.

Where They Give

Our midlevel donors gave to different institutions than small donors or the wealthy typically do. They favor fewer megacharities than smaller donors but give less to universities and hospitals than America’s wealthiest.

Two-thirds donated to disaster relief, almost half responded spontaneously to fundraising appeals. However, 37 percent focused their donations on their place of worship, far more than the national average of 29 percent. This group of donors was more aware of impact but spent even less time on research (almost half spent less than 15 minutes).

We also asked whether they considered making their contributions through community foundations, giving circles, donor-advised funds, or bequests. And we probed whether they supported initiatives other than traditional programs and projects.

Many of the donors had heard of those approaches, but few used them. Less than a quarter knowingly gave to advocacy and communications campaigns or to fund the basic operating costs of a charitable organization. Most troubling, nearly 90 percent said it was important that “the smallest possible portion of [their] donation” go to overhead.

Putting Relationships Over Results

Thus, we found our midlevel donors to be generous and deeply caring, but contentedly apathetic, basing their philanthropic decisions on relationships rather than results. Our conclusions suggested that little has changed since the 2015 Money for Good study by the Camber Collective, which found that “most individual donors are emotional, irrational, and personal. … Finding a high performing nonprofit is not the primary goal nor the number one desired outcome.”

At a time when a third of America’s crucial local community-based organizations may face closure, when Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led organizations are still chronically underfunded, thoughtful and effective support for the organizations doing the most good is more important than ever. How can midlevel donors be equipped with the tools and incentives needed to transform their giving habits?

Wealth Advisers Could Be Key

We were pleased to find that more than two-thirds of donors were “somewhat” and “very interested” to learn “how to select the most effective nonprofits.” Of the “very interested,” 81 percent would favor an online course or webinar, and 51 percent would attend a workshop offered by their financial or legal adviser.

Indeed, advisers hold the key to donor education. In recent years, wealth advisers have grown increasingly aware of the beneficial effects of discussing philanthropy with clients, although this focus has been primarily on high- and ultra-high-net-worth individuals and families. But midlevel donors also consult advisers: Although 80 percent of our 1,260 respondents had assets under $1 million, the same proportion has financial or legal advisers with whom more than two-thirds discuss philanthropy at least occasionally.

Advisers need to be supported with more low-cost educational products that are enlightening, engaging, free of jargon, and specifically targeting midlevel donors. The nonprofit world sorely needs this loyal and generous pool of midlevel donors to find and support organizations that do the most good. They are poised to give more if fundraisers and wealth advisers provide greater motivation. I invite all those who care about more thoughtful and effective giving to take on this challenge.


This article was co-authored with Ayele Shakur, CEO of BUILD, my Encore Public Voices Fellowship colleague – First appeared on WBUR’s Cognoscenti platform:

Alumni often donate to their universities as a tribute to the education they enjoyed, and to allow others the same experience. But they rarely consider whether their donations would have a much greater impact at local public universities or nonprofits that work to send more students to college.

It is time to rethink the near sacrosanct tradition of giving to higher education, particularly since it mirrors our coun

try’s unequal distribution of economic gains. The 20 top schools — a minuscule percentage of America’s more than 4,000 colleges and universities — raised 28% of the $46 billion given to higher education last year. Seven schools received gifts of at least $100 million. Harvard, Stanford and Columbia each raised more than $1 billion.

It may seem strange that we are questioning giving to universities. Sylvia Brown is a University of Pennsylvania alumna and her family has supported Brown University since 1764; Ayele Shakur, a Harvard alumna, is CEO of BUILD, which uses entrepreneurship to propel youth from under-resourced communities to college. We recognize nine out of 10 new jobs created in 2018 went to workers with a college degree. Neither of us doubts the transformational impact of higher education nor the vital importance of university-based research and innovation. But we are alarmed that the growing number of mega-gifts to the same few exceedingly well-endowed universities is not solving the complex college access challenge.

The 20 top schools … raised 28% of the $46 billion given to higher education last year.

Giving by wealthy families to wealthy universities only deepens and exacerbates inequality in America. Universities have slick fundraising machines and built-in donors: pools of grateful — and often nostalgic — alumni, who graduate with an ingrained expectation of giving to their alma mater.

Harvard has an endowment of $39.2 billion. By sharp contrast, the median U.S. university endowment is just $8 million. A $100 million donation dropped into a vast sea of endowments barely makes a ripple, but that same gift judiciously invested in nonprofits or smaller colleges could have a catalytic impact.

For example, 85% of BUILD students will be the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree, but none will join the 1,650 incoming freshmen at Harvard this year. Zolan Dangerfield is a high school senior in Boston who plans to major in international business, a field he was exposed to during his time in BUILD’s youth entrepreneurship program. Zolan was accepted to eight schools and will be the first in his family to attend college.

The question for him is not which school has the fanciest meal plan but rather the cost of tuition and how his family will cover the $5,000 he needs, after financial aid, to attend his first choice, Worcester State University. With luck, Zolan will finish in six years, working part-time jobs. Far too many first generation kids eventually drop out of college because they cannot afford tuition and also find themselves ill-prepared by their under-resourced high schools.

This is why the Varsity Blues scandal is particularly insulting to those of us working to improve access to higher education. This is why the recent $25 million gift to Brown University by an alumnus, Orlando Bravo, to fund the Orlando Bravo Center for Economic Research to study inequality makes little sense to us who think about maximizing impact.

Before writing a big check to Harvard … remember students like Zolan, who would be thrilled to get a $5,000 scholarship for Worcester State.

Indeed, many universities have failing public school systems right in their own backyards, and as they expand their tax-free real estate footprint, they exact dire consequences on their neighborhoods. A 2018 report by RentCafe showedthe high levels of gentrification brought about by private universities expanding in urban areas, displacing longtime low-income residents. At the same time, public K-12 school districts receive very little support or partnership with these neighboring institutions of higher learning. The University of Southern California in South-Central Los Angeles and Columbia in pre-gentrified Harlem are both blistering examples of universities with major endowments doing very little to invest in their communities. As endowments go up, the number of college seats available to children who play in the shadows of these behemoth institutions stays stagnant. These same institutions are advancing income disparities and inequities along with their degrees.

Spring is a particularly challenging time of the year, when students receive their college acceptance letters and grapple with which schools they can actually afford to attend. Before writing a big check to Harvard, Yale or Georgetown, remember students like Zolan, who would be thrilled to get a $5,000 scholarship for Worcester State. There are great kids trying to make the giant leap to college — the passport to the middle class — without enough investment to lift their wings.

Let’s take this opportunity to not only rethink admissions but also to rethink philanthropic investments in higher education. Our country does not suffer from a lack of resources. We suffer from misguided priorities about where those resources should go.

FEBRUARY 12, 2019

All Donors Need More Education — Not Just the Wealthy

By Sylvia Brown


The recent wave of books and articles criticizing American philanthropy and billionaire donors is missing an important point. Of the $286 billion given by individuals in 2017, just $80 billion came from “the top 1 percent” according to IRS figures.

The rest came from small and midsize donors, most of whom devote less than two hours a year — five minutes a week — to due diligence before making a charitable gift. Americans spend hours researching restaurants, cars, and insurance policies, but fewer than 10 percent of donors bother to compare organizations before giving.

These depressing facts come from a 2015 Camber Collective report, “Money for Good,” which concludes: “Donors feel overwhelmed by the giving process, they are often uncertain where to start, don’t have the information they want, feel pressed for time, and hence default to comfortable but less effective giving habits.”

I became aware of a glaring disparity in access to donor education after completing a transformational course in strategic philanthropy offered to wealthy donors by the Philanthropy Workshop. (As I do not have the resources of my ancestors, I probably qualified because of my family’s 300-year tradition of charitable giving in Rhode Island, notably to Brown University.) But once I was equipped with the tools to give effectively, I noticed how few people around me, particularly those who gave $10,000 to $100,000 annually, were aligning their donations with their passions. Since they had no strategic road map to follow, they often felt confused and dissatisfied.

Donor education is needed at all levels of wealth, from the employee who makes payroll deductions to United Way to the multimillionaire with a family foundation. As noted by Paul Brest, former head of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, “Despite the increasing belief that the work of the sector should rest on goal-oriented, evidence-based strategies, very few donors actually follow these principles.” (Hewlett is a financial supporter of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

Ultra-high-net-worth individuals can take advantage of the philanthropy advisory services of private banks, or they can hire consultants. Organizations that serve donors, such as Exponent Philanthropy or the National Center for Family Philanthropy, provide robust educational resources for fee-paying members whose typical gift size is more than $100,000. No one wants to offer low-cost donor education to individuals who are not a source of fees.

Some community foundations and donor-advised funds hold free or low-cost workshops and webinars. Some major players include educational pages on their websites, such as Fidelity Charitable’s “Boost Your Donor IQ,” the Bridgespan Group’s “Give Smart,” and the Philanthropic Initiative’s “Learning Center.”

There are a half-dozen books on effective giving and one MOOC, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen’s Giving 2.0. But of necessity, these guides adopt a “one size fits all” approach and remain overly generic. And most manage to alienate smaller donors by citing case studies of billionaire philanthropists.

Once I finished mapping the situation — and more determined than ever to use my skills and experience to help others give better regardless of their wealth — I sought out intermediaries who would find it beneficial to provide practical guidance for donors at all levels. The most promising group, I concluded, are the trusted financial and legal advisers who already know so much about their clients’ circumstances.

But the current “philanthropic conversation,” a term coined by the US Trust and the Philanthropic Initiative, is not good. According to their most recent joint study, a majority of clients want their adviser to assist with philanthropic decisions, but only a tiny minority feel advisers know how to “give to make a difference.” Conversely, the study concludes that advisers acknowledge that discussing philanthropy is good for business — two-thirds want to learn more about giving — but feel their existing resources are inadequate

To test this finding, I enrolled in the Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy online certification course offered by the American College of Financial Services.

I learned about strategies for integrating philanthropy into estate planning, about taxes and charitable-giving vehicles, about successful fundraising and ethics, but nothing about where the money should go — how to choose a cause and where to intervene, how to measure social impact, and how to select and engage with nonprofits.

The equivalent would be a financial adviser preaching the importance of investing in the stock market and providing clients with the necessary liquidity yet giving them no advice on which equities to buy.

It is therefore hardly surprising that a majority of clients consider their advisers good at discussing personal charitable goals but feel they focus only on the technical aspects of philanthropy, such as tax considerations or wealth structuring, instead of answering the clients’ most pressing questions: “Will my gift be used wisely?” and “How can I learn about a charity?”

The same issue exists for the wealthy families who are being primed to give by consultants and facilitators specializing in legacy and communications issues — and then left hanging.

Again, I investigated this situation by enrolling in a course offered by “21/64,” an organization dedicated to helping families involve their children and grandchildren in giving. When it ended, I asked the instructor, “You have given me all the tools to inspire families toward philanthropy and to prepare their mission statement, but who is going to help them figure out how and where to give?”

“They can hire a philanthropy adviser,” she answered. I thought to myself, Well, what about all the donors giving well under $100,000 who cannot justify this expense — how are they to experience the joy that comes from following a passion strategically and thoughtfully?

Indeed, using brain-imaging technology, researchers can see the midbrain light up when people donate, the same area of the brain linked to cravings (such as chocolate and sex) and pleasure rewards.

Yet a study by UBS titled “Doing Well at Doing Good — Why There’s More to Giving Than Checkbook Philanthropy” concluded that only two in five donors surveyed were “extremely” or “very” satisfied. Only one in five rated his or her efforts as highly effective. The good news, however, is that even a little planning improves satisfaction by almost 50 percent.

Donors are also eager to share experiences but often shy about discussing their giving outside of safe spaces. The proliferation of “giving circles,” geographical or caused-based donor groups that gather to educate themselves and provide greater impact through larger grants, is proof of this desire for fellowship and a more fulfilling giving experience.

Some philanthropists, such as Jeff Raikes, recognize that “educational experiences with a lower barrier to entry, both in cost and level of engagement,” are needed for “BMW donors,” his term for midlevel donors.

In 2017, he launched Giving, a website that aggregates and curates information on trends, trustworthy approaches, and resources in philanthropy. But its use requires familiarity with the field and does not provide a much-needed strategic framework for processing the information.

Other philanthropists fund the development of giving apps and platforms that enable donors to make easy, spur-of-the-moment donations, but these do not incite even a minimal investment in time and thought required to be strategic and effective.

Thus, it is wealth advisers, financial planners, trust and estate lawyers, and tax advisers who have the greatest vested interest in seeing philanthropic education programs developed, both for themselves and for their midsize clients. Many already offer their clients access to virtual financial literacy courses, which require no staff time to run and are inexpensive to produce. They could offer similar virtual donor-education courses that are emotionally engaging (not more PowerPoints and talking heads), practical and specific, providing both concrete case studies (of midlevel donors, not billionaires) and opportunities to learn from one another. A small investment in compelling products would generate outsized returns in client satisfaction.

Other obvious participants in the drive to improve the philanthropic practices of midlevel donors are donor-advised funds such as the behemoth Fidelity Charitable, which distributed $4.5 billion in 2017 from accounts with a median size of only $19,000. Fidelity Charitable and the other large DAFs are in a strong position to ensure this money really makes the most difference by offering enticing educational products to all their clients.

As many recent books and articles have noted, charitable contributions from the wealthiest donors have increased significantly over the past decade while giving by small and midlevel donors (who traditionally make up the solicitation lists for most national nonprofits) have declined by about 2 percent annually. There are calls for legal and fiscal changes, including altering charitable-deduction rules, taxing foundations, and increasing government’s involvement in civic society. But so far, no one has suggested that a sensible investment of time and money in donor education for all might lead to higher and more effective levels of giving and, more important, to a lot more joy.

To better inform my new online course “Smarter Donors… Make a Difference,” I conducted market research using  I asked two multiple choice questions about annual giving levels and about how much research donors undertook before making a gift, and two open ended questions about their satisfaction levels and if they would enjoy learning how to be smarter and more effective.  Within just a few minutes, I had 32 qualified respondents.  Though just a tiny sample, it so perfectly illustrates why donor education is urgently needed that these responses must be shared.

Due to the nature of the research platform, I expected most of the respondents to be small donors (who give under $10,000 a year) and indeed only four give between $10,000 and $20,000 – none give over $20,000.  Twelve checked “I give only to organizations I know well (religious, alma mater, etc).”  Eleven checked “My giving is pretty spontaneous – in response to appeals or requests from friends – so I don’t do any research.”  Only the smallest number, nine, checked “I’d love to find organizations doing good work in the issue area I’m interested in, but I don’t know where to begin.”  As research shows time and again, people give to institutions often not aligned with the causes or issues that move them.

This focus on organizations but not issues was most apparent in the answers to the open-ended question: “If you were offered a free online course to learn how to give your money away more strategically and effectively, would you take it? What would you like to learn specifically?”  ONLY ONE respondent answered, “I would like to learn how to focus on human causes where funding is needed.”  Everyone else wanted to know about the non-profit.  A few (3) used words such as “impact” or “effectiveness,” but the majority wanted to know “where the money goes” or “whether the money is used effectively.”  Several mentioned worrying about high CEO or staff salaries.

Even before conducting any interviews, my decision has been reaffirmed to make “how to choose a cause and develop your personal giving roadmap” the course’s first module.  Figuring out which approach is most effective, which non-profits are already dealing with the issue, and what lessons have been learned must come first.  Selecting an organization to support is the LAST milestone of the roadmap.  And when we get to this final module, the first lesson will be “Overhead costs are not an indication of effectiveness.”  Too few people realize that most jobs in the non-profit sector are grossly underpaid (only 5 percent of America’s 1.5 million non-profits have budgets over $10 million and could even contemplate paying inflated salaries in any case).  Naturally, we all want our hard-earned dollars going to the right organizations, but first we must figure out who is doing the best work, who is listening to their beneficiaries, and who reaching their goals.  None of my respondents said “I want to learn how to do the most good with my modest means.” My course will give even them a simple framework to do this.

The American College of Financial Services asked me to contribute a piece to the quarterly newsletter of the Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy (CAP®) community (I completed the CAP® certification in 2018).  In this article, I point out that clients increasingly ask their financial, legal and tax advisors questions on how and where to give more thoughtfully and effectively – which the advisors are not equipped to answer.  I suggest that my forthcoming online course “Smart donors… Make a Difference” could solve this problem and provide greater client satisfaction.

My time as an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project has opened my eyes to the reality that aging is the one challenge we all will experience regardless of our socio-economic background.

The number of older Americans is set to double in the next twenty years yet support for aging programs has remained stuck at a tiny 1.6% of charitable giving for decades.  As John Feathers, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging wrote in 2014, “the world is no more ready to cope with aging-associated challenges than it is to seize the unique opportunities an aging society presents.” The small amount of age-related funding primarily targets disease and the most vulnerable. Yet aging well signifies aging throughout the life course, not just the frail, elderly stage.

This means funding creative approaches for people of all ages to stay and thrive in their communities – indeed aging in our own community (even if our homes are no longer suitable) is proven to improve lives, strengthen families, and save money.  At a national level, the World Health Organization’s “Age Friendly Cities Initiative,” AARP’s “Livable Communities Project,” and Dan Buettner’s “Blue Zones Projects” seek to improve local environments, public policy, and social networks.  You and I need to ensure such initiatives are implemented in our neighborhoods.  It also means harnessing the experience, knowledge and skills of older people. Older adults are eager for second careers in the non-profit sector; currently one in four Americans over age 55 volunteers.  You and I need to convince organizations to engage them to solve social problems so our lives beyond 50 will be a time of social contribution and impact, not isolation and marginalization.  And it means fighting against ageism. As anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite points out, discriminating against older adults is actually discriminating against our future selves.

So how do we apply an aging lens and invest in our futures when faced with donation requests?  We can start in our own back yard.  Mine happens to be the nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island. Its tiny size and population make it an ideal laboratory to pilot innovative approaches which then can be scaled or replicated elsewhere. Already, Rhode Island has the highest proportion of adults age 85+ in the country and 23 percent of its population is over 60.  Over the next 20 years, that figure will rise by 75 percent (and 100 percent for people age 74-84). Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s older adults rank lowest in health scores and have the highest rate of Medicaid long term services and support in New England.  The majority of Rhode Islanders have two or more chronic diseases (80% of all older American adults have at least one) and 50 percent of those over age 85 have some sort of physical limitation.

However, Rhode Island does have two important assets to tackle aging issues: eleven universities generating innovative solutions in the health sciences and a vibrant community of social entrepreneurs running sustainable “do good-do well” businesses that use market forces to solve social problems.  The Social Enterprise Greenhouse, which supports these enterprises with skills training, networking and capital access, recently announced an aging and longevity program to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in promoting healthy aging.  Some of its members have attracted national attention, such as Doctor’s Choice, a resource for making Medicare Plan coverage decisions, Watch Rx, an elderly medication reminder watch, and Portela Soni Medical, a new standard of urinary catheter. Some are non-profit, such as Hands in Harmony, which provides music therapy grounded in neuroscience, some are for-profit, such as Love Philo, which makes logic puzzles and interactive games for those with dementia and their families.  And some have a purely local focus, such as Savory Faire which provides home cooked, home delivered meals for seniors, or, the state’s first comprehensive resource website for seniors, caregivers and professionals.  But all started needing seed funding.

So whether you support a local charity preventing elder abuse (currently at a six-year high), or fund start-up social entrepreneur whose product you may one day use, or convince your favorite non-profit to recruit more retiree volunteers, you will be investing in your future quality of life.

Five Ways To Give With More Impact This Holiday Season
27 Nov 2018

Last year, individual donors gave $280 billion to 1.5 million non-profits. The vast majority of Americans claim to care about charitable effectiveness, yet only 15% spend even two hours a year investigating how to achieve meaningful impact. You may not have the resources of Bill and Melinda Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but by taking just five minutes a week research your giving opportunities, you can make a bigger difference with your dollars.

Here are five ways to be a smarter donor:

  1. No time to do your own investigating? Then pick an online giving platform committed to research, transparency and measuring impact. Unfortunately, there is no one-stop shop with the capacity to evaluate 1.5 million nonprofits (in comparison, there are 150,000 analysts evaluating 15,000 publicly listed companies). Sites such as,, and indicate whether charities are legitimate and how much is spent on operations; but figures like revenue or overhead costs are no indication of impact.  Good platforms include or
  2. Want to focus on small organizations making a difference in your community? Then call the development director to discuss how you can invest in what most charities struggle to fund: core costs.   Does the organization need to update its computer software? Purchase a new vehicle? Send staff on a training course? Or could it benefit from a consultant’s advice?  Think of how much your gift could multiply organizational effectiveness.
  3. Do you find yourself making too many small gifts to a wide variety of charities?  Then take the time this holiday season to focus on one specific cause – researching evidence is a great family bonding activity.  Look for neglected issue areas where your money can make the most difference.  If health, poverty or education is your passion, then The Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s 2017 High Impact Giving Guide is a useful tool.  Also check out a new resource-packed website:
  4. How about a gift that keeps on giving? From online lending platforms like to loan funds for social entrepreneurs (who run mission driven businesses) in your community, ear-marking some of your philanthropic capital for an investment at a low or “patient” rate of return may be one of the most effective way of leveraging your giving.  Furthermore, many people enjoy developing a relationship with an entrepreneur and find business mentoring highly rewarding.
  5. Follow the 50/30/20 rule: Focus half your giving on one charity or a select few that are most meaningful to you; mark 30% for gifts to local nonprofits; and use the remaining 20% for “impulse” donations such as for disaster relief, tickets to a friend’s gala event, or your niece’s marathon.
Encouraging News in the Fight Against Poverty and Inequality
27 Nov 2018

Since 2008, the portion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.90 a day) has fallen steadily, from 17.8% to 10.8% of the global total – which means about 800 million people. Much of this success has occurred in China and India where economic expansion has lifted millions. However, high growth rates have not resolved issues of inequality. In response, the World Bank announced two goals in April 2013: reducing extreme poverty to just 3% of the world population by 2030 and improving economic inequality by raising the incomes of the poorest 40% within each country. But how?

A partial solution, currently adopted by over 50 countries, is to provide cash transfers. While such programs improve consumption, they are not sustainable long-term. Ultimately, moving out of extreme poverty into sustainable livelihoods means developing an entrepreneurial venture that can support a household. For a time, microcredit was considered a panacea, but its benefits typically do not reach the poorest of the poor, especially women and girls, refugees, the disabled, and the geographically or socially isolated (due to caste or indigenous status).

So, what does work?

Most development interventions have not addressed the needs of the ultra-poor because they tend to be hardest to serve. They are socially and geographically isolated, own few or no assets, have limited livelihood prospects, and often suffer from poor health. But in 2002, BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental development organization, pioneered a new methodology in its home country of Bangladesh. Now known as The Graduation Approach, it is a mix of interventions, offered in the appropriate sequence over 18 to 36 months, that will allow the ultra-poor to “graduate” out of extreme poverty within a defined time period. Its key ingredients include:

– Market analysis to identify viable livelihoods (options might include livestock, agriculture, carpentry, or crafts, depending on the local context)

– Time-bound cash assistance to support the family as the livelihood activity is launched (so that literal day-to-day survival is taken care of for a guaranteed period, ranging from 12 to 24 months)

– Skills training

– Seed capital or employment opportunities to jump-start the economic activity

– Financial education and access to savings

– And crucially, personalized coaching to build confidence and reinforce skills while changing aspirations, expectations, healthcare practices, and even getting kids into schools

Between 2006 and 2014, ten organizations in eight countries tested the Graduation Approach under the leadership of CGAP (the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, a World Bank policy and research center), and the Ford Foundation. Rigorous impact assessments and randomized control trials found it to be cost-effective and producing long-lasting change – unemployment rates decrease noticeably, self-employment rates more than double, and most households reach a monthly income equal or greater than the national minimum wage upon graduation. Most important, over half the participants report improved emotional well-being which persists long after the program has ended. The significant up-front cost was more than made up for by the longer-term economic viability and reduction in subsidy for these households.

Policymakers overseeing cash transfer programs around the globe soon saw the opportunity to integrate the Graduation Approach to provide their citizens with a ladder out of extreme poverty. Today, over 33 countries have integrated the Graduation Approach into their social protection and poverty alleviation policies.

Since its inception, the Graduation Approach has fostered partnerships and collaboration by merging aspects from three very distinct areas of development work: social protection, livelihood development, and financial services (development interventions generally focus on one area with experts working independently of one another). For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is collaborating with the NGO “Trickle Up” to test the Graduation Approach in refugee settings.

Now there are over a hundred programs taking place in 50 countries based on the Graduation Approach. The next challenge is to introduce technology (notably a tablet-based application for the technical skills modules and a lot of the life skills) to standardize and reduce the cost of coaching.

The Graduation Approach is not “moving out of poverty.” It is moving out of extreme, destitute poverty into sustainable and holistic livelihoods in a way that really alters the social and economic dynamics for the participants. It is allowing communities to design their own goals and definitions of success. As stated by one international development expert, “that empowerment and sense of opportunity is probably the most astounding outcome for those of us who’ve been working on this approach.”

What Can Be Done About Modern Slavery and Trafficking?
27 Nov 2018

I often am asked about my 18th century ancestors who were prosperous merchants when slave trading fueled the Atlantic economy.  Though nothing can erase this dark chapter in our nation’s history, we can learn from the past to focus on the 40 million slaves in the world today – far more than in the 18th century.

The prevention and prosecution of modern slavery and trafficking is of relatively recent interest to private philanthropy; its metrics are still not fully defined.  The Global Slavery Index, a project of the Walk Free Foundation, recently agreed with the UN’s International Labor Organization on a total of 40.3 million victims (71% are women and girls), that includes forced marriages as well as forced and child labor (25% in domestic service), trafficking, and sexual exploitation (12% of the total).  But if one considers the “flow” figure – the number of humans who have experienced slavery at some point in their lives – numbers shoot up to 89 million.  Half the victims are in some form of debt bondage, including the 400,000 Nepalese working abroad who will never manage to repay their recruiters.  Half the victims are in the Asia-Pacific region: Cambodians in Thai brothels, Indonesians on Korean fishing boats, children in Indian brick kilns, unpaid cotton pickers in Uzbekistan or garment workers in Chinese factories in Myanmar.  But many labor under our noses on construction sites, in nail parlors, sweatshops, brothels and even in fine homes.

Trafficking rakes in annual profits of $150 billion.  War, climate change or simply the consequences of unchecked development are driving unprecedented numbers of humans into the hands of traffickers.  Thanks to the Internet, sex trafficking has become so sophisticated that for every Nepalese child rescued from a fake orphanage supplying brothels, another takes its place.  Laws exist everywhere but are not enforced; governments move at a glacial pace, often resenting negative publicity (India has the greatest number of victims but regularly shuts down anti-slavery NGOs).  Indeed, the 2,000 NGOs working in this issue area have rescued just 60,000 victims and prosecuted just 14,897 cases.  How can private philanthropy hope to make a difference?

Donors today realize increasingly that the world’s toughest social issues will be solved only by harnessing market forces.  The private sector can act quickly and take risks that governments avoid.  The modern slave trade is a prime example: by funding investigative journalism and strategic litigation, donors can influence the supply chains of the world’s largest companies.  Banks and shareholder activists can add their clout.  Both Transparentem, founded in 2015 by Ben Skinner (author of the landmark 2008 book “A Crime So Monstrous”) and the Thompson Reuter Foundation (whose “Stop Slavery Award” attracts Apple, Adidas, Marks & Spencer, Wallmart and Hewlett Packard) fund investigative journalists who legally uncover evidence of forced labor or exploitation in a corporate supply chain.  Companies are handed these reports and expected to announce remedial measures – or else their boards, investors and major media outlets are alerted.  Transforming the attitudes of big business is key to fighting modern slavery.

The Thompson Reuter Foundation (its “Trust Law” initiative supports the legal needs of 400 NGOs in 175 countries through 80 law firms working pro-bono) and the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center are two examples of organizations pioneering strategic litigation and quality legal aid for victims.   Other groups undertake innovative front-line initiatives around rehabilitation (victims are often just sent home where they are soon re-trafficked, or locked away in shelters while their trials drag on), prevention campaigns, Internet trafficking networks, and giving voices to victims.  But the most commendable efforts are those of groups like the Freedom Fund (a donor-advised fund) that unites 95 NGO partners and invests in such “non-sexy” but vital aspects of this massive challenge as measurement and evaluation.

It took a horrendous civil war to end slavery in the United States.  Today, American courts can prosecute a foreign agent if there is some connection to this country such as a corporate supply chain.  The world is waking up (seven events took place at the September 2017 UN General Assembly), interfaith initiatives are forming; now is the time for American donors to come forward.

Another Rhode Island First
27 Nov 2018

Last year, $41 billion were given to America’s universities.  Donors fund higher education for many reasons, but most are rooted in the notion that universities are agents of social change.  This practice started in Rhode Island, well before the Gilded Age philanthropists endowed universities and libraries.

Nicholas Brown II was born in 1769, son and namesake of the eldest of the famous “Four Brown Brothers.” His childhood and adolescence were marked by anxiety.  Before age 18, he had lost his mother and nine of ten siblings; his family’s maritime business was almost ruined by the blockade of Narragansett Bay during the Revolution. At ten, a very homesick Nicholas was sent to boarding school, then at 13 to a derelict College of Rhode Island (which his family had brought to Providence).  He graduated in 1786 just as merchants were swept out of power by a “Country Party” who introduced paper money, which led to terrible inflation.  Nicholas’s first job was to face farmers rioting at a family store in Grafton, Massachusetts.  The Browns were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with huge debts from ill-advised purchases in England and a major investment in insolvent war bonds.  Meanwhile, his two uncles, John and Moses, fought publicly about the slave trade.

Then in 1791, Nicholas Sr. died, leaving this mess to his 22-year old son and his daughter Hope.

Fortunately, Hope fell in love with father’s remarkable apprentice, Thomas Poynton Ives. Thus, Nicholas acquired an invaluable partner and brother-in-law. In a second stroke of luck, Alexander Hamilton’s federal assumption plan for state war debt meant the family’s war bonds were suddenly worth an enormous sum.

Brown & Ives had two choices: the China trade, pioneered by Uncle John, or textile manufacturing, pioneered by Uncle Moses.  They chose the China (tea) and Java (coffee) trades, as well as banking, turnpikes, canals and later railroads. But they were also inspired by Uncle Moses’s social conscience; Nicholas became Vice President of the Providence Abolition Society and supported many Freed Blacks and their causes. He gave to the College of Rhode Island (renamed Brown University following his $5,000 donation in 1804), to the Baptist and other churches, and to missionary and Bible societies- typical early 19th century charity when America’s new middle class believed social ills could be “redeemed” by Sunday schools, temperance and hard work.

But by the 1820s, an industrial economy and bustling cities had replaced the orderly, rural colonial economy. The population was on the move, streaming out West while immigrants poured across the Atlantic. Politics became bitterly partisan.  Andrew Jackson increased import duties, which boosted Rhode Island’s factories but proved devastating for maritime commerce.  Along with growing numbers of dispossessed factory workers and immigrants, social tensions increased.  The era was marked with constant unrest: in Providence, the 1826 Hardscrabble Riot and the 1831 Olney Lane riot were both racially motivated.  Worse, Nicholas’s two sons refused to follow dutifully in their father’s business footsteps.

So he turned to the one institution he could still influence: the college that bore his name. Brown was going through a difficult time.  Its president had lost all authority due to a religious controversy. Nicholas brought in Francis Wayland, whose iron rule lasted 28 years.  He poured money into new buildings, a library, and scientific equipment.  But he insisted on a classical curriculum rather than newly fashionable “practical courses,” because he believed liberal arts would produce educated men imbued with social responsibility.

Nicholas recognized it was unrealistic for Americans to give up private interests for public good.  Rather they needed a moral compass, a set of values to guide them through the era’s stormy seas.  And Brown University would provide that compass.

Such a vision was unprecedented.  Until then, no one had considered a university so emphatically as an agent of social change nor given so much money to a university in their lifetime, to train the leaders of tomorrow (not just colonial ministers and lawyers).  Today, college applicants are often asked “How will you change the world?” That question was first posed here in Rhode Island.

Sylvia Brown has just published “Grappling With Legacy – Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse.”