Getting More out of your Giving: Two Mindset Shifts that Can Lead to Greater Meaning

Recently, a well-respected philanthropist came to me on a mission to find more meaning in her giving. Many like her who come to us for strategic planning and advising help are, for one reason or another, not satisfied with their giving and are in search of both how to deepen their impact and achieve a greater sense of fulfillment.  

As my colleague, Alex Johnston, has written, generating both fulfillment and impact is critical; without satisfying both of these needs, many funders will stop giving or revert to “easy” and less catalytic giving.

Many assume that the answer lies in designing a better strategy or adjusting their giving tactics.  They’re often looking for a checklist of actions to take to improve their impact, such as expanding their portfolio of grantees, revisiting their strategy or the metrics they use to evaluate success, and analyzing the broader landscape. And for some funders, this process does lead to more fulfillment. 

But it’s also possible to steep yourself in best practices and still yearn for more meaning in your giving. For these funders, getting more meaning out of their giving means looking at how they relate to their giving—what does giving mean to them? Why do they give? What purpose is it serving in their lives?


How Donors Relate to their Giving

Too often these questions go unexplored. Moreover, how a donor relates to their giving evolves over time. In our work with philanthropists, I observe a few common ways that donors relate to their giving: 

  1. Giving as a Financial Strategy – For some, giving starts as a means of tax avoidance and can take the form of parking resources in a donor advised fund that go unspent. 
  2. Giving for Recognition – For others, giving brings adornment, perhaps in the form of their name on a building or a gala in their honor. 
  3. Giving to be Part of a Community – Still others give to cultivate their sense of community (think of contributions made to a religious institution or school by its alumni), 
  4. Giving for Results – These donors seek out and give to leaders or to organizations with a logic model they feel can bring about positive change and often focus on the tangible results of their contributions.
  5. Giving in Partnership – Donors relate to their giving in this way when they move beyond thinking about financial capital to seeing themselves as catalysts for building power (and removing impediments to power) in disenfranchised communities in long-term sustainable ways (keep an eye on this space for an upcoming post on how to do this!) 

The different types of relationships that donors have with their giving can be thought of as a progression, starting with giving as a financial strategy and building toward giving in partnership. Our experience has been that as donors move through that progression, their relationship with giving gets more complex and in turn, holds their attention longer, engages them more fully, and feels more meaningful.


Two Mindset Shifts to Find More Meaning in Your Giving

So, how can donors change their relationship with their giving to bring about deeper meaning? 

There is no simple checklist. Rather, it’s more about how you show up as a funder and the mindsets you bring to your giving. I’ve observed two major mindset shifts in those donors who once gave in a way that didn’t bring the satisfaction they were looking for, but have since found deeper meaning in their giving. 

First, these donors tend to move from “knowing the answers” toward a place of “deep curiosity”

These donors curb their instinct to solve complex problems in simplistic ways as well as dogmatic beliefs around what solutions will be effective. Instead they recognize the limits of their own perspective and operate with a genuine openness to learning. For many, this leads down unexpected — and rewarding — paths in their giving. 

Second, these donors tend to move from being “motivated by extrinsic rewards” like recognition or seeing the tangible results of their giving, toward “intrinsic joy through the act itself.” 

There’s an analogy here with folks I know who are avid runners. They often start with a tangible goal in mind (maybe getting in shape or running a particular race) but over time, they come to find deep fulfillment in the act of running itself. The experience becomes meaningful even beyond the destination. 

For these donors, giving becomes about being in community with the people whom they hope to impact. Coming from a sense of curiosity and partnership liberates them from the pressure to maximize “return on investment” in more limiting ways and from the fear of making mistakes in their giving.


So, how do YOU relate to your giving? Where are you on the progression described above? Are you open to evolving how you relate to your giving? 

The world will benefit from philanthropists who are committed to real change over the long haul and that happens when funders find more meaning in their giving, even in the face of hurdles and setbacks. Whether on your own, with your peers, or with a trusted adviser, I encourage philanthropists of all types to examine how you relate to your giving, and to embrace new ways of showing up as a donor.