Lessons for Local Philanthropy: What We’ve Learned So Far — Part II

Chapter 3: Lessons and Limits in Donor Organizing

By Catherine Crystal Foster, CEO and Co-Founder

In the spirit of transparent learning, Magnify Community is sharing the next set of our reflections on what we’ve learned from our work to date, as we reach the last phase of our three-year experiment in catalyzing greater local philanthropy in Silicon Valley.

This set of reflections — in four chapters — shares insights from our efforts to seed a new local giving norm among high-capacity givers in Silicon Valley through a three-year pledge. This chapter highlights some of the challenges we faced and the many lessons we learned and are continuing to learn as we use the Magnify Community Pledge as a vehicle to organize donors and help set a local giving norm in motion.

The Magnify Community initiative is intentionally crafted as a time-limited innovation lab. As such, our work is not merely focused on near-term impact; we continuously harvest lessons that we hope will be useful as this work continues. Those fall into several categories: challenges in donor mindsets and circumstances, contextual factors, and unrealized opportunities.

Challenges in donor mindsets and circumstances

Countering belief systems: We often bump up against donors’ belief systems about who is a “philanthropist” (many find that too big a frame for themselves) and who has the stature/size to organize others. Some Pledgers identify as movement leaders, since they have told us so in focus groups. But those highly activated donors are not yet the majority.

We also confront many donors’ entrenched beliefs about local organizations and the limits on how high-impact, strategic, scaleable, or root-cause-oriented those organizations can be. Considering that donors universally point to the lack of a powerful and cohesive vision for Silicon Valley, and the lack of leadership to hold that vision, it’s hard to find the truly big bettable local ideas to rally around (though COVID recovery efforts and the more robust voice of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation may help).

Making philanthropy and collaborative work a priority: High-capacity donors, particularly the newly wealthy in tech, have busy lives: building companies or investing in them, traveling, or raising families. While we have some Pledgers who are newly-wealthy founders or key employees of high-flying tech companies, we haven’t achieved traction at scale with that population. Most simply aren’t focusing on active philanthropy right now. They also may not want to cede some of the control that is necessary to organize with others in pursuit of something that might transcend their personal priorities.

Cultivating an abundance mindset: An “income” rather than “wealth” mindset affected the way donors approached pledging and the size of their philanthropic checks, which is important in considering the way that a donor might act pursuant to a local giving norm. When they think about charitable giving, many donors — especially younger ones or working ones — seemed to focus less on their very substantial and growing wealth than on their current and anticipated income in the years ahead. And they have a very hard time committing to the kind of very large gifts or total local giving increases that they were wholly capable of making.

As a colleague noted at a learning exchange session earlier this year, while most high-capacity donors know how much money they have, and likely can approximate how much they gave away the prior year, they rarely divide one by the other (to see what a small percentage of their overall wealth their charitable contributions represent). If they did, they could see how much more they could give. And since people rarely make consumer transactions of more than $50,000 themselves, checks of more than that size may feel uncomfortably large, unless there’s an expected financial return. Thus, not only is it challenging to norm local giving, it’s hard to norm local giving at major scale.

Recognizing local allocations accurately: When we asked Pledgers whether our Pledge request caused them to do anything differently, most pointed to their need to calculate their local giving. Almost no one knew what percentage of their giving was to local community-based organizations. The very act of calculating that percentage was eye-opening to most of them and valuable as a way of sparking a way of thinking that aligned with the kind of norm we were attempting to set.

Overcoming donor discomfort with revealing numbers: With the exception of institutional foundations with staff, signers were very hesitant around the time of their Pledging to reveal just how much their percentages represented in dollars, whether it was with respect to their current giving or a projected increase. In part, this seemed to stem from a reluctance to do the calculations; in part, it reflected discomfort with revealing the total extent of their giving for privacy reasons; and in part, it may have resulted from a sense that any increase or local contribution wasn’t big enough. Significantly, this shifted for most Pledgers by the time we asked them to take stock of their 2020 local giving.

Reconciling with gatekeepers: We actively worked with family offices and wealth advisors, who gladly took our tools. But gatekeepers of prominent ultra-high-net worth donors rarely transmitted the Pledge information to their principals, saying that a pledge was not something to which their donor would commit or find interesting. Those donors didn’t want to be held to a commitment, and didn’t want a target on their back in the event of a misstep, like the oft-cited Mark Zuckerberg gift to Newark schools, we were told.

The influence of external context

Peer influence to shift behavior: People are uncomfortable talking about money, including the ultra-wealthy donor class. Through our Pledger briefings, featured blog posts in our newsletter, and community events, we called on donors to see their abundance and the importance of bigger and bolder giving — and it helped. But it is the peer influence in the community we assembled that is really starting to influence behavior and set the norm.

Among those who took the Pledge, only 26% of donors pledged to increase, and the majority of those increases were relatively modest, though they aggregated to more than $47 million over three years across all Pledgers. The disappointing number of Pledgers committing to increase their local giving turned out to be less of a problem than we feared, however. The vast majority of them actually did increase their local giving in 2020.

Challenging context for public philanthropy: Coming on the heels of polemics against big philanthropy, criticism of the undemocratic nature of American philanthropy, calls for wealth taxes, DAF reform, and decolonizing wealth; not to mention news accounts of tainted donations from the Sackler family and Jeffrey Epstein, this was not an ideal time for some ultra-high-net-worth donors to wear their philanthropy on their sleeves, outside of COVID and racial-justice-related giving. In Silicon Valley, where millions flowed to political causes following the 2016 election, timing was also not ideal for approaching donors who were focused on preserving democracy by donating to candidates and PACs.

Tapping into the full potential

Untapped potential among donors of color: We have yet to make deep inroads with donors of color, despite a strong desire to do so, active partnership with the Latino Community Foundation, and programming focused on racial equity and inclusion. We have deep work to do in order to create connections and trust with donors of color and to tap into the long traditions of giving in communities of color that may not look like those of whites.

Nurturing existing commitments to community: We heard again and again that donors who signed felt a real obligation to the place where they live, and felt that because Silicon Valley is where they made their wealth, that they should give back. Even among the many who signed “because you asked me to,” the majority became very bought-in as they became more engaged in the community. This is a promising opportunity for growing the tribe and expanding the norm.

Tradeoffs of geographic focus: We also found that focusing on just the two counties of Silicon Valley limited our appeal to many potential Pledgers, who thought of their local giving more expansively, across more of the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. Ironically, as we provided giving insights and opportunities for community-building during COVID, those who have taken our Pledge have told us emphatically that our singular focus on the Silicon Valley community is our unique value proposition for them. They would be less engaged with us if we had embraced a larger geography.

Balancing high-touch work with scale: While the notion behind Magnify is that we are testing and seeding ideas that can scale, we still harbor some frustration around the small number of people we have activated in a region with over 148,000 millionaires and billionaires.

In light of all that we’ve learned so far, we are able to take the measure of our progress and chart the questions we still hope to address in our remaining months, as well as those we hope others will address after our initiative concludes in September 2021. We will address those reflections and questions in the final part of this installment of our learning.

Powering local philanthropy to make Silicon Valley a better place for all of us.

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