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Sylvia Brown | Why I’m passionate about donor education

Sylvia Brown is a philanthropist who has chosen to leverage her experience and resources in helping other donors become more thoughtful and effective with their funding. We speak to Sylvia to learn more about why she is making accessible donor education the focus of her philanthropy.


How did you become involved in donor education?

I am very fortunate to come from a family that’s been heavily involved in philanthropy in the U.S. for over 300 years.

But in recent decades, my family has engaged in a lot of what I call ‘cocktail party giving’ – requests from friends, too many small gifts, not questioning whether their donations are making a difference.

Over the years, my university degree in development economics, coupled with my work in emerging markets from Wall Street to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, led me to wonder if there was a way to be more strategic.

“I’m a bit of an unusual philanthropist for having chosen to leverage my skills and resources to help other donors give better.”

In 2007, two shocking experiences of very misguided giving by people I knew finally convinced me to enrol in a transformational course offered by The Philanthropy Workshop. Here, I learnt the elements of strategic giving and was given the tools to make more effective decisions.

The course changed my life but also opened my eyes to how little time people think about and research their charitable giving – contrary to the hours and hours they spend planning a holiday or buying a new dishwasher.

Next, I spent several years educating myself (I’m now a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy and a non-profit board governance trainer in the US) and learning about giving habits.

Today, I’m a bit of an unusual philanthropist for having chosen to leverage my skills and resources to help other donors give better, rather than to fund a particular cause or issue.

 

What gaps currently exist in donor education?

While learning about the philanthropic sector, I discovered there are many individuals who care deeply about making a difference but are averse to spending time and money educating themselves.

Some qualify for the philanthropy advisory services of private banks or can afford to hire consultants. But to date, no one has offered practical, affordable advice to donors who must make their own giving decisions.  

Instead, you have a perfect storm whereby donors are reluctant to spend resources to understand basic concepts such as social impact, while at the same time, many charities struggle to communicate the difference they are making.

“I am convinced that dissatisfaction is a major reason for the continued decline in the British public’s trust in the charitable sector.”

So, a handful of mega-charities with big marketing budgets capture the lion’s share of donations. Eventually, donors become dissatisfied and engage less with charities.

I am convinced that dissatisfaction is a major reason for the continued decline in the British public’s trust in the charitable sector. Giving should be a source of joy – but this requires a modest investment in self-education. I want to break this vicious cycle…

 

The birth of a new education course for donors

After much research in the US, I came up with the concept of a short, self-directed virtual course that empowers individuals to give more thoughtfully and effectively.

I call it “Smart Donors… Make a Difference.” Last year, the Beacon Collaborative asked me to create a UK version of the course, which they call “ThinkingGiving.” Naturally, it required much more than converting dollar signs to pound signs!

“I came up with the concept of a short, self-directed virtual course that empowers individuals to give more thoughtfully and effectively.”

There has never been something done like this in the UK before, so it’s an exciting prospect. I believe it will be of particular interest to long-time but frustrated donors or to those approaching philanthropy for the first-time who want to ensure their donation is making the biggest difference possible. 

In the US, I distribute the course through financial and legal advisers who realise that discussing philanthropy is a powerful customer relations tool.  In the UK, it’s available to the general public.

“More enlightened donors will seek out and support charities doing the best work.”

I have no illusions about the challenge and how tough it will be to convince people to spend time and money researching their donations. But I am absolutely convinced that more enlightened donors will seek out and support charities doing the best work – and feel more positive as a result – thus creating a virtuous circle.

 

What advice do you have for those looking to get involved in charitable giving?

  • Choose the right cause – Many wealth managers say asset allocation is the most important aspect of managing a portfolio. In the same way, three criteria should guide your choice of cause and issue area within that cause:
    • solvability – how much good will result from solving this issue?
    • scale – what are the chances of success?
    • neglectfulness – how many resources are already going to solving the problem? Could your donation make a bigger difference elsewhere?
  • Appreciate that every problem is part of a complex broader ecosystem – There are many players in every ecosystem and many possible intervention points. Learning even a little about your chosen issue will help you select which interventions make the most difference.
  • Be open to multiple approaches – Charities can use three main approaches to effect change:
    • community-based – direct services
    • policy-based – advocacy and communications
    • market-based – harnessing business forces for change

Any good charity should consider a mix of these or should work with partners whose approach complements their own.

  • Support charities that are proximate to those they serve – There is a lot being written today about charities empowering the communities they serve by involving them in the design and implementation of their activities.
  • Understand impact – Impact is one of the most misused words in philanthropy. It really means moving the needle on an issue. Before you get to impact, there are outputs (activities and programmes) and outcomes (the difference these activities and programmes are making). Too many charities only report their outputs. Too many donors confuse outputs and outcomes.
  • Build charitable capacity – Once you have selected a charity that has the potential to truly make a difference, ensure that it thrives and grows by supporting its operating costs, its leadership development, and its ability to measure and evaluate impact with unrestricted funding.