A lot of attention has been given to the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Maybe it’s just the papers I read, but the tone largely seems to be around the idea that Arkansas doesn’t really deserve a world-class art museum, or that $800 million is a lot to give one new organization in support of art–that it weakens the art world in general.
In what might seem unrelated, the New York Times recently reported extensively on Steve Jobs and his philanthropy. Or rather, his lack thereof.
I of course spend much of my time thinking about big gifts to a wide range of philanthropic causes, and many of the organizations I work with operate on the premise, “if we can find wealth, we can find donors.” Indeed, the only prerequisite to be a million-dollar donor is that you have a million dollars to give. Donors have been all ages, both genders, from every corner of the world—the only common factor is wealth.
Wealth is also the part of the philanthropic equation that we as fundraisers have no ability to affect—donors either have the ability to make a gift or they do not. We can build relationships, explain our mission, describe our impacts, leverage our friends, and take a number of other measures to convince prospective donors we’re worthy of their philanthropy. If they don’t have money to give, it is all for naught.
So this has led me to a conclusion that is bordering on heresy for a person whose livelihood is, in large measure, predicated on identifying people with money: Your case for support is just as important as finding prospects with capacity. This might seem self-evident, but no case currently out there that managed to convince Alice Walton that her $800 million was worth her investment. A major American art collection–that is widely accessible—is what Ms. Walton appears to want. No one offered a solution to her vision, so she created it herself.
Mr. Jobs, whose philanthropy may in fact be simply very private, has nevertheless expressed that he can do more good in the world through Apple than through philanthropy. I don’t believe Mr. Jobs is cheap, miserly, or uncaring, either. Rather, it is we—fundraisers, deans, researchers, advocates, and service providers—who have failed to demonstrate that we could spend his $8 billion in a way that will make a sufficient difference in the world. This reality exists despite the fact Jobs is a man who understands risk and the nature of investment. He got it right on so many things (he’s named on 313 patents), but he didn’t trust us to do the best possible things with his investment.
So, definitely find wealth and identify those people who can make a difference to your organization and mission. Just make sure when you talk with them, you’ve got something to say.