Wealth and Hyper-Agency: Why Strategic Philanthropists Grow Frustrated and Bored with Organizations and Their Leaders

Each year for many years I have hosted a dinner with estate planning clients who have either made a gift of over $1,000,000 or had executed an estate plan, which include a gift of that size or larger. Since I want them to feel free to discuss with other donors their thoughts and concerns, I intentionally exclude nonprofit representatives. Just the donors and me.

I host these meetings for a number of reasons.

1.  I want to thank my planning clients for the privilege of working with them.

2.  I want them to get to know each other. Almost all of these folks are strategic donors who want to remain under the radar, but really enjoy spending time with like-minded people.

3.  I want to hear them share with others what they want to “change” next.

4.  I just want to listen and learn how they think about philanthropy.

Listening to these strategic philanthropists talk among themselves about social problems, I notice something quite remarkable. These individuals, who have earned or inherited enormous wealth, perceive of and approach those problems in ways that are very different than most of the fundraisers who solicit them for funds. That gap of perception and approach constitutes the boredom and/or frustrations factor with organizations and the leaders.

Three years ago at one of these dinners a gentlemen made a comment that has been hard to forget. He said, “I am going to build a Women’s Hospital if I can ever get a nonprofit to listen to the needs of women.”

He went on to state his frustration and his determination with the group of twenty-three guests. The gentleman was determined to move forward with or without the involvement of the hospital board on which he currently sat. His first wife had died of breast cancer and his second wife was fighting for her life with the same disease.

“I am tired of fighting with them and listening to their excuses. I am going to find a partner who wants to get this done!”

I’ve learned a lot of interesting and valuable lessons from just listening to people talk to each other. Below are four insights.

1.  Strategic philanthropists game plan for success is not simply improving the team but by changing the game. Dr. Paul Shervish, an associate professor of Sociology at Boston College, is an expert in what he calls the sociology of wealth. He uses the term “hyper-agency” to describe the way the wealthy perceive and approach the world.

“Hyper-agency is the ability to determine the conditions and circumstances of life instead of merely living within them. As agents, most people search out the most suitable place for themselves in a world constructed by others. As hyper-agents, the wealthy construct a world that suites their desires and values. If agency means ferreting out the best possible path within the institutionally given constraints imposed by others, hyper-agency means being able to construct a self and a world that transcends the established institutional limits and, in fact, create the limits for others.” 1

They (by virtue of their wealth) have developed a very uncommon sense of empowerment, access, and potential to impose their will on society by changing the rules or “the way things are.”

Put more simply, while the ninety-nine percent look for a way to advance a cause within the rules of the game (i.e. the way things are), the top one percent are more likely to advance the cause by discarding the board, rewriting the rules, and changing the game. They (by virtue of their wealth) have developed a very uncommon sense of empowerment, access, and potential to impose their will on society by changing the rules or “the way things are.” Consequently, they are far more likely to think in terms of affecting a cultural sea-change than those who share same concern but without the same sense of empowerment.

Philanthropists who regularly fellowship with one another around this kind of possibility thinking, can immediately sense a scarcity-obstacle oriented perception.

2.  Strategic philanthropists get bored and impatient with partners who do not share their vision and beliefs. Most non-profit leaders are daily faced with limitations on every front. Nothing wrong with facing limitation. It’s certainly much better than denying them. However, the constant awareness of lack within an organization cultivates a scarcity mentality while the abundance of resources has conditioned the philanthropist to think in terms of possibility. Philanthropists who regularly fellowship with one another around this kind of possibility thinking, can immediately sense a scarcity-obstacle oriented perception. What they spot even quicker is someone pretending to have a bold vision of the future when in fact their thinking is deeply scripted with lack of empowerment and possibility.

3.  Strategic philanthropists get bored with anecdotal evidence of meeting a need. That is not to suggest that they only want to see the numbers or that they are not concerned about an individual story. It does, however, mean that they quickly reset their attention to the bigger picture. For instance, a development director meets a major donor for coffee and relays a tear-jerking story about how a child was supported, rescued, or served. The donor is of course very happy to hear about the benefit to that child. Consequently, the development director leaves thinking the meeting went marvelously. However, the tear-jerking story barely concluded before the donor began to think, “What about the 500 other kids in that same neighborhood? And what about the thousands of kids in similar situations throughout the city.”

4.  Strategic philanthropists tend to care more about the cause than the organization. Organization leaders, who care about both, are often pressured to focus more on the organization. Sometimes executives are almost consumed with the back end organizational needs. Many strategic philanthropists when evaluating funding requests ask the non-profit leaders to talk about other organizations that are addressing the same need. It is a not-so-subtle test. Donors do not want to fund duplication. They are also looking for some measure of the organizational leadership. Is their primary motivation to reduce the problem or increase the organization?

The economic crisis beginning in 2007 highlighted these differing priorities as many grant-makers and philanthropists began recommending the merger of organizations meeting similar needs. The willingness among funders for organizations to disappear compared with the dismay of struggling non-profit leaders at this idea highlight the point. Philanthropists are cause-oriented, not organization-oriented. And when philanthropists sense that inward-oriented focus among executives, they tend to lose interest.

This is the challenge for non-profit executives: to think like strategic philanthropists rather than as a fundraisers.

The gentleman wanting to build a Women’s Hospital was determined to bring about change. He liked the hospital, but what he was really passionate about was cancer — he hated it! It wasn’t hard to see in this most generous man that he hated cancer far more than he liked the hospital and its board.

Non-profits are looking for gifts to the organization, while strategic donors want to make investments that will change the world. This is the challenge for non-profit executives: to think like strategic philanthropists rather than as a fundraisers.

__________________

By Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

1 The Gospels of Wealth; How the Rich Portray Their Lives, Paul G. Schervish, Platon E. Coutsoukis, and Ethan Lewis, Praeger Publishers (Westport, CT: 1994)

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8 Responses to Wealth and Hyper-Agency: Why Strategic Philanthropists Grow Frustrated and Bored with Organizations and Their Leaders

  1. Doug Mason says:

    Eddie: Nicely done and spot on. Dr. Paul Schervish is a real sage in our work. His perspective on the “archeological dig” we need to conduct to better understand prospective donors and constituents has been at the core of my consulting work for years. Thanks for taking the time to put some of your valuable insights into to words so that others of us can benefit. Blessings to you and your family this Christmas – Doug Mason at Gonser Gerber.

  2. Mark Larkin says:

    Excellent article, thanks! Very thought provoking.

  3. Pingback: Strategic and Tactical Giving – Part 2: Hans Brinker with His Finger in the Dike | The Fundraising Executive

  4. Frank Stepp says:

    Nicely done Eddie. “Scarcity thinking” is so prevalent among nonprofit execs, even if subconsciously. Too often they are those with a dream but constrained by doubt. As you have so clearly pointed out, “possibility thinking” is promoted by those with a dream and the financial ability to make it happen. Perhaps the reason is more related to seeing the bigger picture (investment as you call it) rather than another project. I’m passing this on to all of my clients.

  5. Phil Schumacher says:

    Eddie, I think you have hit the nail on the head. There is a Canadian study done by Mallabone and Myers a few years ago that looked at how entrepeneurs made their gifts and what type of stewardship they expected. It provides findings consistent with your thoughts. Warm Regards, Phil Schumacher.

  6. Denise Pope says:

    Spot on. We must never forget that it is not about what our organization needs, but the needs of those we serve.

  7. I think the most beautiful moment of our work comes when we connect our donors, with gifts large and small, to their cause and at some point, we surprise them on how carefully we listened and executed on their passions. I am struck too that as many in our profession, like many in the world, feel content to live within the norms and limits set by others. With philanthropy, we have the opportunity to be game -changers. I want to be that kind of a leader and partner with leaders like that as well. Thanks, Eddie, for a well-thought, eloquently communicated piece.

  8. Chad Leitch says:

    Eddie:

    This reminds me of the Star Trek episode back in the late 60s where it was discovered that starship Captain James T. Kirk had graduated from his class at the top, being the only graduate ever to have beaten the computer in a simulated battle that was in essence a final exam. How he did it was to break in to the computer room the night before the simulation and reprogram the computer to allow him to win. The issue being raised was whether he cheated or whether he was a true leader to change the parameters of the situation with which he had to deal and not be encumbered by the rules.

    Successful people find ways to work around the rules to their advantage; great leaders figure out how to change the reality of their world to accomplish their goals.

    Chad

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