What the Notre Dame fire taught us about philanthropy

It started with 9/11, then the tsunami in Thailand, the international stock market crash – and now it’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Since I first started working in the non-profit sector in South Africa, there have been a few notable events that have changed the way we look at our industry and our world.

 It’s hard to imagine a time when we flew without removing shoes and belts or scouring the local pharmacies for super-small containers of toiletries to pack in our carry-ons. It’s equally difficult to remember the last time we heard someone bragging about their fantastic new US donor. 9/11 changed the face of philanthropic giving. It was the point at which the superpower’s grant makers realised that not only were there problems on their own doorstep, their interventions were not as welcome in certain beneficiary countries as they imagined they were. It became a time of introspection, followed by radical shifts in funding behaviour.

 The tsunami in Thailand shone a spotlight on natural disasters and paved the way for the provision of immense international support for similar tragedies in Haiti and Nepal. Then the stock market crashed and, once again, everything changed. Even Harvard, that bastion of US academia, was forced to retrench staff as the value of its endowment dropped by a third, almost overnight.

 So how does the loss of a centuries-old church in France become the catalyst for a similar shift in development funding priorities? It’s simple. For once, donors have been presented with a problem that CAN be solved by throwing money at it.

 If we use the Sustainable Development Goals as a checklist of the problems in the world to be solved, it becomes clear that most of the issues highlighted have no single, definitive solution. In fact, there may be any number of possible solutions to each one, and, it may be argued, no single intervention will completely eradicate many of the wrongs the goals are trying to right.

 It is this very nebulousness that explains the groundswell of support for efforts to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral. There’s no ambiguity here. The building burned down. We need millions of Euros to rebuild it and then it will be rebuilt – the problem will be solved.

 Unlike poverty, hunger and access to healthcare, for example, that require a sustained effort, year in and year out, to make any sort of progress towards a solution.

 The Bible tells us that Jesus said: “the poor will always be among us”. And in the more than 2,000 years since it was first written, this has held true. The circumstances of millions continue to be perpetuated; they are born into grinding poverty and die with little or nothing having changed.

 If you feed a hungry person today, they will be hungry again tomorrow. And if you provide treatment for someone with a chronic disease, they will need treatment again. And again. And again …

 Sometimes, we make pretty sweeping assumptions about what we think donors want to fund. We don’t always do our homework about the causes that our prospects are passionate about and, with a degree of arrogance, we present our funding proposals, in the sure and certain knowledge that our way is the right way. But is it? Shouldn’t we take the time to learn from the very people whose attention we are trying to grab?

 When I make an appointment with a grantmaker, I tell the individual up-front that I am not there to present a proposal (unless I am specifically asked to do so). Rather, I would like to learn more about what the person, company or foundation is interested in. Once I am reasonably comfortable that I would not be wasting the prospect’s time by sending a proposal, I do so. I must note that not all donors are open to this approach, but I have found it to be more successful than an aggressive, unsolicited ask.

 So rather than criticising those who have chosen to direct their largesse to fixing an old church, take a long, hard look at your own efforts. Are you solving problems? Are you packaging your solutions in such a way that you are honest about the impact you are making, while remaining true to your mission?

 And, most importantly, are you creating an enabling environment for that novice philanthropist who gave money to a problem with a solution to find more challenging problems to solve?

Notre Dame gargoyle

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