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

Chapter 2: From a Pledge — and a Pandemic — to a Model of 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 focuses on the ways in which our work advancing the Magnify Community Pledge evolved into a donor-organizing effort that created a community of engaged and activated local donors.

From a document to a community

We didn’t create the Pledge in order to build a donor community. We developed it to launch a call to action, a prompt to inspire others, and an accountability mechanism that would help set a new norm. But within months, a community formed among those who took the Pledge and the people who worked as their staff. What began with in-person connections (Magnify’s big public debut on Sand Hill Road — Silicon Valley’s Wall Street — followed by an intimate Pledge launch at a donor’s home, a learning breakfast hosted by a Pledger for her donor friends, and a philanthropy-focused dinner for Pledgers at a Pledger’s home) was growth-hacked by the virtual world.

COVID changed everything. We were the right solution at the right time for this movement moment. The urgency, the proximity to the pain the local community was experiencing, and the desire to take action in the face of a force that seemed beyond anyone’s control all drove donors to seek out ways to provide relief through their philanthropy. Layer on the racial justice reckoning and the devastating wildfires that darkened Silicon Valley’s skies and drove even the wealthiest to seek refuge, and donors were primed to seek opportunities to make meaning and forge connections. Magnify seized this opportunity. We surfaced what was happening on the ground among the most vulnerable people and struggling — yet resilient — nonprofits, and discovered what was really missing: community among donors and insight into nonprofits beyond the most well-known and frequently-funded. This was the basis of our pivot to an entirely new product offering for donors and allies in our network.

We began virtual and more frequent interactions. The shift to remote allowed for easy gathering among donors over monthly Zoom meetings (“briefings”) to offer explanations and insight into what was happening on the ground from the local nonprofits with true expertise, as well as dedicated peer-to-peer exchanges. We could combine staff and principals/trustees in a way that felt natural and not awkward. Our videos-on, no-frills, no-slides, tightly-timed meetings enabled focus on the right things: content and conversation, not catering and valets. These were optimized for equity; donors, staff, and nonprofits were all equal at the “table,” which wasn’t situated in an elegant living room in a donor’s home in the hills. It was in the kitchens, bedrooms, and messy offices of each attendee. This put the spotlight on the burning needs and funding gaps right in the donors’ backyards, and gave them common ground to connect with each other live in the meetings and in off-line follow-ups. We followed up each briefing with summaries and resources, and early in the pandemic, compiled a frequently updated list of needs and opportunities throughout the Valley that donors used as a resource.

Pledgers love coming to our briefings (two-thirds of Pledgers and their staff actively participate in our events), and have told us they are eager to see these briefings continue even beyond the current crisis. They appreciate not only hearing about local needs, but connecting with the local leaders, not as people to be saved, but active, engaging leaders who are architecting solutions. That distinction can help drive a sustainable norm.

As we described in the first installment of our reflections, these Zoom briefings became a cornerstone of our work. They helped us drive millions of dollars to local nonprofits and, significantly, created an identity among our Pledgers as part of a learning and giving community. We continued to foster this through a virtual thought leadership circle meeting hosted by one of our Pledgers. We introduced Pledgers to one another, featured their giving stories in our newsletter and blog, and encouraged them to seek out one another as resources, and as potential partners in philanthropy.

This growing sense of camaraderie made donation matching and peer-to-peer paddle-raising among Pledgers easier, as it did for a match for our largest regional food bank, a multi-million-dollar ask for the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund, a challenge by tech co-founders and their investors and peers, and a wildly successful effort to save the home of a youth organizing group from displacement.

We also brokered connections among Pledgers with aligned interests, leading some to self-organize to meet regularly to share strategies and discuss nonprofits. We merely laid the groundwork, and see their meeting without us as a sign of our success.

Our ability to create the fertile ground for this community to flourish was based on trust. We don’t aggregate capital, take fees, or make recommendations based on any vested interest other than the well-being of the local community. We respect nonprofits and donors, strive to place equity at the center of our work, and live our values of deep collaboration with a wide range of organizations. We know that trust matters because our Pledgers told us that repeatedly in surveys and focus groups.

We also know that trust led our Pledgers to make grants to nonprofits we featured in our briefings and giving tools, and that a handful of Pledgers entrusted us to recommend specific recipients of substantial gifts, in the $250K to $500K range. It is our hope that this climate of trust will help solidify the local giving norm by making local giving a more assured and satisfying experience.

Stewarding the community as donor organizing

From the start, we were more focused on connecting donors to one another and motivating them to action, rather than creating a new club for donors and providing services to them — especially because our region has a number of strong and emerging donor communities like SV2, Legacy Venture, The Philanthropy Workshop, First Principles Forum, Full Circle Fund, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. (Notably, we shared our resources with all of these organizations, and invited them to direct their members to our briefings, and even co-create briefings with us.) We came to define and embrace our norm-changing work as donor organizing. We underscore the distinction from donor services, and differentiate ourselves from any organization centered around transactions (like a DAF provider) or one in which collective action among donors is not key to the value proposition or business model, or why a donor engaged with them in the first place.

As described in the first part of our learning series, we sent our Pledgers a number of navigational tools to inspire and inform their giving, including curated lists, high-impact and time-sensitive giving opportunities, “bigger bet” opportunities, an analytical issue brief on housing with giving strategies and recommendations, as well as our briefings and bespoke recommendations. All of these were focused on unlocking dollars to fulfill and surpass their Pledge commitment, and driving toward a local giving norm. They are a vehicle for organizing the donors in pursuit of a common goal.

In the next part of this installment, we’ll address some of the challenges we faced and the many lessons we learned through our norm-setting experiment.

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