Generosity Day: What surprised, inspired and moved me

•February 21, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Esteemed colleague in the philanthropy arena, Sasha Dichter, Acumen Fund, with the help of Katya Andresen, Network for Good, Scott Case, Malaria No More, and Ellen McGirt, Fast Company, decided to reboot Valentines’ Day to Generosity Day. From Sasha’s blog  “….Generosity Day: one day of sharing love with everyone, of being generous to everyone, to see how it feels and to practice saying ‘Yes.’  Let’s make the day about love, action and human connection….The goal is to spend Valentine’s Day being more generous, giving more money, sharing of yourself, being of service.  All acts of generosity, small and big alike, count….”

This was the perfect time for me to fulfill a missed opportunity from a few weeks back: at the COF Family Foundations Conference in NYC, I decided, in the interest of networking, to join one of the “Dine Arounds” instead of a volunteering to serve food to homeless people. So, I called NY’s Coalition for the Homeless and offered my services to their Grand Central Food Program, which delivers food to homeless people by van at multiple locations in Manhattan and the Bronx every night.

(Photos: Our team – Kathryn, me, Connie, Isaac and Graham.)

On Tuesday, Feb 15, I bundled up to fulfill my service commitment on a cold night. In the style of my dear friend, Jennifer McCrea, who writes the Exponential Fundraising blog, I would like to share with you what 1) surprised, 2) inspired, and 3) moved me.


  • There were people in line for food that did not “look” like homeless people. We, as volunteers, are not able to ask what their situations were, and perhaps, a few may have not even been homeless but it was clear that there were hungry people in NYC who needed help and it may not be obvious to us by the “look” of them. They waited for this van religiously.
  • Some homeless people are looking for a little connection from us. As the van pulled up, I could see them approaching us with a smile. They would engage in a short conversation, some seeking eye contact as if they were looking for a little acknowledgement from me: “I see you.” Almost everyone said “thank you” to us; even if that was the only time they looked up as we gave out food.
  • And the cookies! We only had one box of almond crescent cookies (veteran volunteer Isaac had brought it with him). So we handed one to each person until we ran out. How delighted people were to receive this tiny bit of decadence! A smile would come over their face when they realized we were giving them a cookie. Ah, love of cookies….universal.


At the very first stop, there was an old lady with cane bundled with a crocheted shawl. I thought “Oh my God, please don’t tell me this lady is homeless.” She smiled as she approached me and I saw the sparkly neon green shoelaces on her shoes and I said “I like your shoelaces!” She said to me “I’ll give them to you!” It always surprises me when those who seem to have so little, offer to give you something they have. I thought I was the one who was supposed to be generous today.


One of our last stops was just inside Central Park – just two people. There was a man who only took oranges and cartons of milk – as many as he could fit into his jacket. When he stuffed his jacket full, he disappeared into the park. It was cold and dark. Where could you possibly stay in the park?!!!

It occurred to me how much courage it must take every day to be homeless. I can’t imagine the inner fortitude it would take to keep moving forward day to day, having no place to go, hoping you might be able to eat today.

These insights are what is so compelling about “in-the-field” experiences. It informs your decision-making process – especially in philanthropy – and gives you the opportunity to exercise compassion like nothing else.

The final conclusion is that I’m looking forward to continuing to volunteer with Coalition for the Homeless. I hope I see some of the same faces I saw the other night. And even though, as I rush through the crowded streets, I can’t look at every homeless person in the eyes  to let them know that “I see you,” I know that one evening a week, I can dedicate a little time to making that connection.


Changing Attitudes and Actions: It Takes More Than Giving Things

•February 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

This is a guest post from Daniela Papi of PEPY:

We get stuck too much on the idea of giving “things” to save the world. People need education? Build them a school! People are getting malaria? Give them a mosquito net! There was a devastating earthquake in Haiti. Send them shoes!

The problem is, THINGS don’t make improvements in our world. PEOPLE do. Schools don’t teach kids. Teachers do. Water pumps don’t provide clean water to people. People treating the water and transporting and storing it hygienically do. THINGS don’t change lives. So why do we keep talking about giving things as the main solution to the world’s problems?

When it comes to emergencies, it’s different. Right now, the short term needs in Haiti revolve around basic needs and access to things like medical equipment, food, clothing, and shelter, (all ranking above shoes!). When we get outside of emergency situations we are often looking to make changes in human actions and need to stop looking to things for a solution.

For example, we look to bednets to solve a malaria problem. We try to rush to get more bednets to more people to solve a problem that isn’t just about things. In many places in the world, malaria-carrying mosquitoes feed at sunset. Most people are not spending the time right at sunset in their beds. Besides that, it isn’t about getting the bednets into people’s hands; the solution is educating people about malaria—ways to prevent it (including bednets), how to treat it. In places where malaria is very prevalent, putting dollars which might have gone to bednet distribution into educating people about the early signs of malaria, connecting people to local or free hospitals, and providing education about the most useful forms of treatment might save more lives and also create a market demand for bednets.  Besides, giving things away can sometimes destroy the development of market-based solutions to product distribution.

One organization I have come across that really understands that educating people is the key to putting technologies to work is the team at Resource Development International Cambodia (RDIC). They make a rope pump which is made entirely from locally sourced materials including rope and PV tubes. It fits on top of a traditional open well and sells for about $250. Though much cheaper than the deep tube wells installed by many NGOs, the price is still cost prohibitive for most families, so RDIC has a two year repayment plan. At RDIC, they recognize that the core changes they are looking to see don’t have to do with things as, in this case, they are looking to see reductions in the number of people with water born illnesses. With 24 repayment days where an RDIC employee collects the payments, they have a chance to teach 24 lessons to ensure that they reach their goals of improving health. Lessons have to do with in-home water filtration, how to fix and maintain the new rope pump, home dug toilet solutions, hygienic food preparation, and more. They not only have 100% repayment on their rope pumps, but they are making changes in attitudes and actions surrounding health issues.

After learning these lessons in Cambodia, when I give money to an organization, I look for one where the methodology involves community education over a cookie-cutter solution focusing on giving things away.

I want to leave you with some tools to think about when donating money. When choosing where to give my money, I would look for NGOs where:

  • The website seems less focused on the quantitative numbers (10,000 libraries in 50 countries) and more on the methods of how they will build capacity in the local community to create these changes themselves.
  • When asked, NGO workers are willing to discuss past failures and current improvements. I would ask “What things are you doing today that you weren’t doing a year ago, and which things have you stopped due to lessons you have learned from your successes and failures?”
  • The focus is on putting “things” and ideas to use, not just distribution. If there is a physical item being donated or sold, what are the plans for education and support around repairs, usage ideas, and markets for further local-led distribution.

Daniela believes that changing attitudes and actions requires an investment of time in people, and that education is the key to the changes she wants to see in the world. Daniela is the director of PEPY, an educational development organization working in rural Cambodia. PEPY focuses on building the capacity of teachers and communities to increase access to quality education. PEPY is funded in part through PEPY Tours, and edu-venture tour company offering cycling trips and service learning experiences in South East Asia. You can connect with Daniela on her blog, Lessons I Learned, or in real life in her office in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

6 Questions to Ask Before Planning a Philanthropic Trip, Part 3 – Activities

•February 4, 2010 • 1 Comment


GUIDED DISCUSSIONS ON THE GROUND: Philanthropist, Karen Ansara, shares that these in-the-field experiences “inspire as many questions as there are answers.” Often people leave for their trip with preconceived ideas, only to find that once in-the-field, the game has changed and they need to shift their thinking to incorporate new information.

That’s why guided discussions on the ground can be invaluable: it allows you to process the information and emotions from these in-the-field experiences and connect it to your philanthropic initiatives. It’s not just about going to see a project and being moved, but also thinking creatively about your role in the solution. Guided informal discussions during a trip can be an effective way to launch a thought process during the trip and bridge it to actions to be taken after the trip.

The key is finding the right person to facilitate that discussion in an objective way. More often than not, it will not be a representative from the organization you are visiting on the ground, but rather a trusted advisor, a trustee, or someone else who can help balance the objectives of your philanthropy vs. the needs and capacity of the organization.

BRINGING/DISTRIBUTING SUPPLIES: “Fantastic yet misplaced generosity can be so dangerous. I am reminded of the huge influx of donated clothing from abroad to Zambia in the 1980’s had the unforeseen impact of totally crippling the local textile industry. We must never forget that for every action there is a reaction.” –Julian Page, Livingstone Tanzania Trust.

While the quote above references a fairly large amount of donated clothing, it reminds us that before committing to bringing supplies from abroad, ask: “Can this be purchased locally?” So in addition to supporting the program with needed items, you can also support the local economy.

It’s also a great idea to get an updated priority list of needed items from the organization to ensure that you will be providing things they need vs. what you think they need. (i.e. does the school really need another book donation or more notebooks, or would they rather have some new desks for a classroom) Many organizations are happy to take whatever you are willing to offer – you are the one donating so you have the power. But getting information from the field and including them in the decision-making process is a smart way to ensure that your efforts are truly useful to the organization because they are the ones who have the capacity to best assess needs and priorities.

SERVICE OPPORTUNITIES: Service opportunities are a great addition if you are open to rolling up your sleeves and work elbow to elbow in the community. It also enables philanthropists to experience a different level of personal contribution that goes beyond money.

On the flip side, I’ve heard anecdotes about service opportunities that have more volunteers than work to be done or have been “manufactured” for the donor but gave didn’t really deliver in providing real interaction or insight into the project.

So how do you find a meaningful opportunity to contribute time, skills and energy and does not overburden the organization’s staff? Here are a few considerations:

  • Months in advance, work with the person planning your trip to identify a possible service opportunity with one of the organizations you are interested in visiting. The goal is to find out what work is currently being done by the organizations and their current needs for outside help vis-à-vis your (or your group’s) skills?
  • What amount of time are you willing to commit – half a day, several days, more?
  • How many people from your group will be involved?
  • Be realistic about your comfort level for doing work on the ground – i.e. will you be working outside, do you mind getting dirty, do you have any limitations doing physical labor, is your contribution more administrative – but allow yourself a little room to stretch your boundaries.
  • Sometimes NO is a reasonable answer. For some organizations who are very specialized or are not set up to incorporate outside volunteers, your request may not be possible. Think about other organizations in a similar field or geographic region, or perhaps considering a longer service opportunity which will allow for some training and give you the chance to see the real day-to-day successes and challenges of the organization.

In an evolving arena, this conversation has been started with the idea that other voices would offer their insight, ideas and experiences. It is only with open and engaged dialogue that we will be able to refine each other’s thinking and develop win-win situations for both philanthropists and social enterprises.

6 Questions to Ask Before Planning a Philanthropic Trip – Part 2, Vetting Service Providers

•December 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Part 1 of our series covered questions about your philanthropy.

Part 2 focuses on the actual execution of the trip, and in particular, questions for the the service provider.

Defining a philanthropic journey. While all gestures of generosity such as the giving of time and skills as well as money are of great value, for the purpose of this article, we will be defining a philanthropic journey as one that involves a donation or intention to donate money.


Single NGO or Non-profit: There are a variety of non-profits who regularly bring donors out to visit their projects. This works well if you have already identified the organization as on you might like to support. You will get an in-depth view on their particular theory of change. The downside is there is a very good chance that you will only be experiencing that one particular theory of change for the entire trip.

Requirements on whether you must be an existing donor to join the trip varies, so inquire before making any further plans.
Group Trip: A group trip has several main benefits. First, it’s an easy alternative to having something crafted especially for you/your family. You benefit from the organizer’s expertise and their connections, and you will probably gain exposure to a variety of organizations focused on a certain issue or geographic area.

Second, you will be able to exchange thoughts and ideas with other people in the group. Different individuals/families have different ways of evaluating organizations and pick up on different details, and you’ll have access to these varying perspectives during your trip to enhance, and maybe even challenge, your thinking.

Third, a group trip is a good choice if you are just beginning to explore a certain issue area or geographic region.

Customized Trip: A customized trip for an individual/family is a deep dive learning opportunity which focuses on their specific interests and the guidelines/philosophy of their philanthropy. With a customized trip, depending on how specific you want to be, you can direct the focus, the geographic location, and the length of the trip. You can decide whether to incorporate a vacation as part of the journey, or not.

Additionally, if you are working with a service provider to craft this trip, they should be able to make appropriate recommendations as to projects to visit and activities that will help to enhance the journey….again, customized to your interests and guidelines.

Question 5: HOW DO I FIND THE RIGHT SERVICE PROVIDER (i.e. consultant, travel company) TO DEVELOP MY TRIP?

Your answers to the questions in Part 1 will likely be a good guide and offer you clarity on the needs that should be fulfilled when planning your trip with a consultant or other service provider.

There are many types of organizations promoting “philanthropic trips” or “travelers philanthropy” including companies whose main focus is on travel planning. Whenever exotic locations are involved, websites and brochures feature beautiful photos and touching stories, but some of the philanthropists I interviewed suggested that you look beyond the marketing and ask some deeper questions.

Philanthropist, Karen Ansara, has taken several philanthropic trips with her family and comments on the time and effort they put into their trips: there is a “direct correlation between how much you put in and how much you get out of it.”

What is the background of the person planning the trip and suggesting projects?
Interestingly enough, this was one of the first, if not the first question a variety of friends in the philanthropy arena would ask when I mentioned various service providers. Inquire about the background of the person working directly with you in identifying projects and coordinating the site visits. Who are they and what kind of experience do they have?

How will the service provider match me with organizations on the ground?
If the trip is being customized for you and the service provider will be identifying organizations for you to visit on the ground, this is an important question.

The key here is the consultation process in advance of planning the journey. Identifying appropriate projects/organizations on the ground requires the service provider to know the client fairly well, so be clear on what that process will be. As Executive Director of the Flora Family Foundation, Steve Toben quarterbacks this process for the family and reaches out to their contacts to identify projects because people in their network, “…know what business we’re in.” In other words, when customizing a trip, your service provider needs to know you and your philanthropic objectives in order to steer you towards organizations that could be a good fit.

Some service providers partner with a certain number of non-profits which streamlines their process, and the client is most likely matched with partner organizations. Others use their trusted networks to research and access a wide variety of projects and organizations in order to better customize connections for clients. Again, this is about what serves you and your philanthropy best.

Who has vetted the projects?
When I mentioned the words “vetted projects” to philanthropists, they were in unanimous agreement that this was important to them, even though they intend to ask rigorous questions themselves. Whether your preference is big multi-national organizations or small grassroots programs, if this is important to you, ask the questions: Who has evaluated the organization? What is their process? How is impact measured?

As stated in the previous question, some service providers partner with a certain number of non-profit organizations, while others may receive referrals from a network of trusted contacts in the industry. Either way, since “vetting” takes many different forms, you should ask about the vetting process and if there is any additional fee associated with it.

How does the service provider ensure that the interaction you have with the various organizations and their beneficiaries is respectful and appropriate?
Every part of the process should be developed to ensure respectful interaction for all concerned. It starts with evaluating a client’s interests and intent then successfully identifying projects that match a client’s values, interest areas and objectives. In other words, make sure that your site visits are focused and aligned with the issue areas, goals and guidelines of your philanthropy.

From there, it’s about how you are prepared for the trip: background on country and culture, context of the visit, people you will be meeting, and cues on things like protocol and photography. We find that other philanthropy-focused groups like Active Philanthropy in Berlin who have run a variety of group expeditions, also find that providing a strong context for the journey from the outset is key: “The purpose of the visit is about the NGO and the target community and how they can be supported.” In other words, your service provider should guide its clients towards purposeful observation so that they can make informed decisions about grants.

Transparency regarding how the service provider makes their money.
This recommendation came directly from the philanthropists themselves and confirmed by other consultants in the industry. The bottom line is this: while exact numbers don’t always need to be revealed, it should be clear to you exactly how your service provider makes their money. Whether it is a consulting fee, a premium added on to the trip cost or some compensation from the organizations being visited, the client should understand, what’s in it for the service provider.

What broad considerations should you make with regard to security?
When considering places to visit, research on the stability of the government and any recent violence or crime. While bodyguards are often not necessary in visiting most places, your service provider should be taking cues from the ground as far as appropriate security measures, especially from individuals who are very familiar with the communities you will be visiting. Some projects are not located in well-trafficked places or tourist areas, so you really need people familiar with the area to weigh in here.

With regard to managing information, let’s simply say consider limiting the number of people who have access to your itinerary, especially your full itinerary, and other information. Ask the service provider as well. Also, keeping a fairly low profile while on the ground; we talk our clients through all this.

These are not tremendously difficult things, but simple steps can go a long way in ensuring your safety on a trip.

6 Questions to Ask Before Planning a Philanthropic Trip – Part 1

•December 3, 2009 • 2 Comments

“6 Questions to Ask Before Going on a Philanthropic Trip”

PART 1: Your Philanthropy

Going on a trip where there is an opportunity to give back is gaining popularity. A variety of organizations are putting together “philanthropic travel” opportunities, including tour companies that were previously focused on just the travel experience. As most of the press on this topic has come from the travel industry, I was surprised that the interviews and articles often failed to ask some critical questions important to many philanthropists. This is an opportunity to pose some thoughtful questions from the philanthropy side to help people make the most of their journey.

Defining a philanthropic journey. While all gestures of generosity such as the giving of time and skills as well as money are of great value, for the purpose of this article, we will be defining a philanthropic journey as one that involves a donation or intention to donate money.

I am also defining a philanthropic journey as one that starts with the intent to visit a project(s) and explore critical issues on the ground, and devotes part of a longer holiday or the entire trip towards that goal. A philanthropic journey is an intensive, focused learning experience on all dimensions of giving. It stimulates a participants needs for uniting the needs of the heart, the head and the hands.

After discussing this with a variety of industry colleagues and philanthropists, I have consolidated these thoughts in 6 substantive questions. This is not meant to be a be-all, end-all list but rather a place to start a more substantive conversation – raise the bar, so to speak – about what can and should be provided to individuals who are interested in making a positive impact with their philanthropy.


Look inward first. Before planning this type of journey, people should look inward first – to their values, philanthropy and the type of commitment they are looking to make. Whether you are giving serious thought to expanding your philanthropy to a different region of the world or area of interest, looking to engage and train other members of your family in the grant-making process, or interested in identifying and evaluating a variety of organizations within a specific interest area, these are all examples of scenarios where a philanthropic trip planned with a knowledgeable consultant can be of tremendous benefit.

This is especially true of individuals and families who have a greater level of complexity in their philanthropy because of the significant assets they have either set aside or intend to commit to their philanthropy throughout their lives. Typically, this means that there is a stronger focus on due diligence and sometimes more personal engagement.

In talking with Timothy Karsten, who is active in his family’s foundation, he comments that along with the “bigger checks,” he invests more of himself because it is a long-term relationship. He adds that “Giving family members the opportunity to travel and see organizations in-the-field, not only enriches them, but fuels their giving because of the opportunity to select partners to walk through life with.” I think he put that beautifully, and I believe it speaks to philanthropists’ desire to find projects and organizations that they are truly passionate about and can be part of their legacy.

Do you have a guiding philosophy or mission statement that directs or influences your philanthropy?
Steve Toben, Executive Director of the Flora Family Foundation, where the family has taken nine trips in the last ten years, shares that “the design [of the trip] grows out of our strategy,” meaning that their mission for funding best-in-class, innovative social service models drives the kind of programs/organizations they want to visit.

Whether or not you know the amount of resources (time, knowledge, networks and finance) you are willing to contribute, given the right organization, of course, there should be a seriousness of intent, especially because of the time invested not only by the donor but for the organizations and other experts you’ll meet on the ground. Not-for-profits invest in such visits resources that they often need to run their day to day activities. And to be respectful of that, individuals/families should look upon a trip like this, as an expression of their serious concern of the critical issues on the ground.


What are your reasons for exploring a philanthropic trip now? Are you looking to augment what you are doing in your philanthropy? Are you interested in gaining exposure to new projects or have a deeper learning experience about a specific issue? Here are two main reasons why people choose to go out into the field:

  • Better understand the dynamics on the ground. In geographic areas where you may not be as familiar with things like local politics and culture, it’s tremendously helpful to visit the field and gain an understanding of the variables that may impact the effectiveness of a program. This is especially so with international grant-making.
  • Opportunity to identify and vet organizations. Many are striving for that “perfect fit” or as Michael Alberg-Seberich from Active Philanthropy put it, donors are looking for “an organization that serves the cause that they are committed to in a highly efficient way but whose leadership also relates to them on a personal, emotional side.”
    Steve Toben, Executive Director, Flora Family Foundation, adds that because the family is interested in making grants to different regions of the world and the foundation does not have a field presence, these trips serve as essential site visits for potential grantees.


A few thoughts to consider:

  • Who is involved in your philanthropic decision-making? Are other family members, trustees involved?
  • If you are thinking of bringing children, are the location(s), content and activities planned age-appropriate?
  • Do you have a foundation executive or advisor who can bring expertise to your on the ground discussions?

Do You Think I’m Sexy?

•August 6, 2009 • 2 Comments

My question: What makes an organization or cause “sexy?” Is it a charismatic leader, a great spokesperson or a good story? How does an organization’s or cause’s ability to promote and tell the story impact their ability to draw broad support and raise enough funds to make meaningful and lasting change?

I was reminded of my fairly recent trip to East Africa, doing site visits. One of them was to a game reserve whose guests supported local community projects. We went to see the school complex with multiple school rooms w/ plaques bearing donor names, teachers’ quarters, solar panel, and even transportation for weekly trips for teachers to go into town and run errands. All funded by donor money. It seems that there was tremendous interest on the part of guests/donors in educating children, and because of that the organization’s effort to support it was robust.

Right next door was the clinic: one small room, no beds or separate examination room, small closet with supplies, one overworked nurse and his assistant — we met them on the road walking back from a house call. Real hospital with equipment, hours away. (Photo is above.)

I couldn’t understand how there was such an inequity in funding when there were two equally important needs literally right next to each other. So, I started asking every organization I met on the trip about why there was not more funding for clinics, clearly health is a huge issue. Someone told me that cute children, hungry children, AIDS is sexy to fund; clinics not so sexy. Other people I met on the trip agreed with that statement. That information/opinion hit me like a ton of bricks.

An organization in Uganda told me that there is an area in Kampala where there is only one clinic for 400,000 + people, no medicine. I seem to remember more disastrous figures quoted on Twitter recently. I’m sure there are similar statistics in other developing countries and we might be surprised at what we might find here in the rural U.S.

So much need. So many important, critical issues to address….now. Most of these issues, not so sexy. No judgements. Unfortunately, no solutions to offer. Just wondering if other people ask similar questions. And how can we bring the “not so sexy” stuff to the table?

Working with Indigenous Communities

•July 2, 2009 • 1 Comment

Last November/December, I was fortunate to spend a month in East Africa speaking at a conference and doing site visits. So many NGO’s and other charitable organizations were talking about working with indigenous communities, but it was interesting how many shades of gray there were when it came to how it was being executed on the ground.

Some of the signs that showed real partnership with the community were things like hiring locals (and treating them well), supporting the local economy, conducting discussions in the local language, being part of village meetings and letting the community set the priorities. You could also tell from the interactions with the community, who was truly welcome and making impact.

I’m curious to hear from the broader philanthropic/social enterprise community what they have learned about working with indigenous communities and what true partnership with them is all about.