Reality Check: The Great Act of Giving

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

It’s the season of giving and getting, that time of year when our thoughts shift from “I don’t need anything” to “I want everything”, helped in no small way by the strategically mailed catalogues that arrive the week of Halloween and the Christmas music that begins a few days after. Nonprofits, hip to the flurry of consumerism this time of year, politely ask us to pay attention to their needs over the din of deals. Donors dutifully respond to their appeals for help for nearly 8 weeks, performing rituals of generosity that mark this time of year with check-writing and tax deductions. Is it any wonder that by January, we all need a break from the business of giving?

FWMoA joined many other nonprofits around the world in #GivingTuesday, an event that asks donors to gift a specific amount that is matched. Photo by FWMoA.

In their best light, gifts are signs of our affection for one another, and their merits have nurtured human relationships throughout the ages. However, a gift always costs something—if not our treasure, most certainly our time, and often, our very selves—but a sincere giver will say this cost is worth the sacrifice. This economy of the gift is fascinating to observe in a non-profit organization, whose very existence is dependent on gifts so that it may in turn give the gift of its service to the community.

As tidy as this system is on paper and evocative of feel-good emotions, many charitable gifts are conditional and are in fact contingent on the things that necessitate a gift in the first place. Some donors measure their gift to the extent that their chosen charities can attract other gifts, and others make their gifts only after certain organizational costs are covered. Many look for signs of “self-sufficiency” or “sustainability” before making a gift, reluctant to help an organization with “operating” or “overhead” costs, instead favoring the more gratifying and seemingly more direct gift toward program needs.

Students from J.E. Ober Elementary enjoyed a fee-free docent-guided tour through the museum thanks to a grant from the Lincoln Financial Foundation. Photo by Katy Thompson.

There are many good reasons for donors to behave this way. Anyone who is in a position to part with their treasure—whether earned or inherited, as owners or stewards—will see their decision as one that merits thoughtful consideration, aware that some charities will use $100 more wisely than others. Surely, the donor concludes, it is better to give this donation to an organization who will serve 50 children in need than to the organization next door who will only reach 25 children in need. Such an equation, in the donor’s mind, signals robust impact, or, colloquially, “bang for your buck.” Similarly, another donor feels passionately about a nonprofit that helps adults learn to read, but he isn’t so passionate about the electricity bill the nonprofit struggles to pay. The donor thinks to himself, I want my gift to directly help adults learn how to read. I’ll give a gift, but only if my gift isn’t directed toward operating expenses.

Though for different reasons, both donors want to make a gift, but in a way that is particularly pleasing to them. Both are compelled to give, but their ultimate decisions to give are based on results that they desire to influence or create. To press this point in a philosophical sense, we could argue that they’re not actually giving a gift, since a true gift is one that exists outside the “ritual circle of debt”[1], a closed system marked by conditions, expectations, and rewards. Though fascinating, this thought exercise is too vast and nuanced for the scope of this discussion, but it indicates that what we call a gift to charity is perhaps more appropriately described as an investment because of the desire for a specific result from the gift. Could this also be why nonprofit development professionals frequently use the phrase “make a gift” and describe their work as “attracting gifts”? This type of language signals a degree of ownership for the donor in what becomes of her gift well after it is given, which we would be wrong to expect if we were giving a birthday gift to a loved one. Further, we would never say we were hoping to attract nice gifts for Christmas. It’s clear that in the American nonprofit sector, there’s a lot more at play than sheer generosity when a donation is made. I would be remiss to not mention that we do have a word that describes this activity, “philanthropy,” the actual meaning of which is “love of humanity” through active efforts to promote human welfare, but this definition only speaks of the good for mankind and falls short of capturing the gratifying effect that giving has on the donor. I would also be ignorant of the broader discussion if I failed to observe that charitable donations are not always made with sterling intentions: some gifts, we find out, are given as part of a public relations campaign to clean up the image of a disgraced company or individual. Others are problematic in themselves if it comes to light that the donor has engaged in questionable or downright corrupt business practices.

History has shown that though Americans are generous, they aren’t free from the spoils of gratification, as evidenced by concert halls bearing their name or museum collections built to suit their interests. This isn’t necessarily a condemnable trait, and if Champetier and company are right, it’s impossible in this world to be free from it. I also suspect gratification, in the positive sense, is an ever-present aspect of American culture, since from the beginning we have sought fulfillment on our own terms even at great costs. Having slayed the dragons of imperialism more than once, Americans have long enjoyed rights to pursue for themselves what will bring them happiness. Factor in the industrial boom of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which set the stage for economic stability and prosperity for millions in ways that weren’t possible before, and many Americans now have both the dreams and means to shape their world.

Sweetwater helped fund FWMoA’s guitar exhibition last year. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

The birth of organized and widespread American philanthropy after the Civil War follows closely with the rise of great industrialists such as Carnegie and Ford who, with their massive fortunes, created institutions for higher learning and funds to fight poverty. Other families, like Libbey in Toledo and Lilly in Indianapolis, gave not just cash, but collections, homes, and land to establish the museums in those towns. Generous as these gifts were, the donors did want something in return, but not in the immediate, self-indulgent sense of a true quid pro quo. We can’t be certain that, for someone like Andrew Carnegie, it was the charitable deduction added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1917, because he had given away most of his fortune in the last 18 years of his life before he died in 1919.

Indeed for all Americans, the 16th Amendment ratified in 1913 fundamentally changed society by allowing Congress to tax income. It’s been said that this shifted power away from states and toward the federal government[2], and if that were true, then the charitable deduction was a way for individuals to take some of that power back. Absent a Carnegie fortune, the average American could ease their burden to Uncle Sam and have a choice in bettering society. Not to be left behind by the elite philanthropists for long, the general public was soon to have a chance at changing the world. During World War I, Americans collectively gave $400 million in membership dues to the Red Cross, helping the wounded, sick, and downtrodden one gift at a time.

Just this last year we renovated our Learning Center with funds provided by Wells Fargo, who also supports the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition in our region! Photo by Katy Thompson.

Let’s revisit this idea that a charitable donation is more appropriately called an investment than a gift with a look into the etymology of the former. I admit that I get caught up in uncovering the precise meaning of words, thinking the origins of words tell us more about their meaning than their modern usage. Permit me a final wander down this path. Invest derives from the Latin verb investire,“to clothe,” and it was used that way by Shakespeare in the most literal sense and in the Acts of Parliament of 1533-34 to symbolize honor by ceremonious attire. We begin to see that invest implies a transformation of sorts, and 17th century Italian usage of investire to suggest “clothing” money in a new form was used similar to the English invest, which came to define the commitment of money for a return. Though English speakers today will have a technical financial definition in their minds when we say “investment,” its usage centuries ago reveals a far richer meaning. An investment is the intentional use of something valuable to create something even more valuable—transformation by treasure, if you will. Though I delight in this definition, I am afraid it’s not likely that we’ll replace “gift” with “investment” in the language of charitable fundraising, nor will we use “philanthropy” as commonly as we use “giving.” Ironically, though less accurate, “gift” connotes the heart and soul that’s missing from the common usage of both these counterparts.

The fictional donors, the industrial tycoons, and the regular American citizens we’ve met in this discussion have existed on both sides of the income tax and the charitable deduction, and they vary dramatically in their means to donate. They’ve seen our country at its best, worst, and most promising with each new age that they inhabit. The conditions they place on their gifts—where they go and how they are spent—are not reflections of a stingy, controlling donor absorbed by his own interests. They reflect the donors’ deep desire that their gifts will transform the world, and even a fear that they may not if misused. They paint for us a picture of what they see in a better future, one that’s been born of inimitable life experiences, dreams, and failures. For these reasons, we are rightly and inescapably gratified by giving, and understood for hoping our names will be remembered with our gifts. Call them conditions or restrictions, but the choices we make in the great act of giving are reflections of our unique and unrepeatable selves, and we mustn’t be troubled for wanting them to be honored.


[1] Champetier, Charles. PHILOSOPHY OF THE GIFT: Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Angelaki, 6:2, 15-22, 2001. DOI: 10.1080/713650416

[2] Holcombe, Randall G. “The 16th Amendment: A Transfer of Power from the States to the Federal Government.” The Beacon, 12 Feb. 2013, https://blog.independent.org/2013/02/12/the-16th-amendment-a-transfer-of-power-from-the-states-to-the-federal-government/.


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