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4 Fears That Keep Your Clients From Being Charitable

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Your clients have worked hard and achieved great wealth. They are generous, well-meaning people who want to use their wealth to make a difference and leave a legacy.

Perhaps you’ve helped them set up a donor-advised fund or private foundation. And then? Nothing. When you speak with them about how they’d like to engage in their charitable giving, they seem paralyzed with uncertainty.

Chances are, they’re fearful of philanthropy.

Creating wealth and holding it can be a very private enterprise. But giving it away can open a donor up to questions, scrutiny, or even straight-up criticism.

Here are four kinds of fear I’ve seen most often in charitable giving, and what you can do to help.

1. Fear of Being Seen

As I mentioned above, giving away money can be a very public business. Many wealthy donors fear that once their community discovers their philanthropy, they’ll be accosted by requests. Others fear that if they publicly support a cause or an issue, they’ll open themselves up to criticism or attack, or possibly damage some existing relationships.

Look no further than recent headlines for evidence of this. Jeff Bezos’ recent pledge of $10 billion to fight climate change sparked instant criticism that he contributes to pollution through Amazon’s excessive parcel packaging. A donor of more modest wealth might wonder if she will also be negatively judged for her gifts.

How You Can Help: While it may be tempting to facilitate anonymous charitable transactions for a client, anonymous giving isn’t very effective for donors who really want to make a difference. Good giving comes from trusting relationships with other donors and community leaders.

Help your clients cultivate them. Arrange for some quiet lunches between your clients and others who have similar charitable interests. Encourage them to meet with the nonprofit leaders they are interested in supporting. Let them see they’re not alone in the work of giving and connect them with allies who will boost their confidence.

2. Fear of Failure

Many charitable individuals feel paralyzed by the responsibility that comes with wealth and philanthropy. They are afraid they won’t be good stewards of the charitable resources they control.

They fear they’ll make bad grant decisions or invest in projects that end up not working. And probably most important, they fear they’ll disappoint others whenever they have to say no.

How You Can Help: Remind your clients that giving money away is an imperfect art and science, and that the mistakes they’ll make are simply more opportunities to learn.

Connect them with a local or national association of grantmakers where they can learn closely from peers, gain access to tools, and stay abreast of emerging best practices. Help them to conduct due diligence on the organizations and projects they want to support.

3. Fear of Learning

Your clients are smart people. After all, they’ve generated tremendous wealth. They’re used to feeling confident that they’re correct in their approaches, that they possess the knowledge needed to successfully run their enterprises, and that they (almost) always make the right decisions.

But there’s nothing like shifting from the business world to the philanthropic one to challenge a client’s knowledge and assumptions about how the world works and what kinds of approaches might best solve a social problem. Many donors are simply afraid of learning they might be wrong.

How You Can Help:  Help your clients understand that effective philanthropy often begins with learning. Let’s say your client wants to help kids in your community get into and graduate from college. He remembers how a mentor helped him to do this, and he credits that mentor to changing the trajectory of his life. Rather than jump to funding the most well-known mentoring program, you can encourage your client to learn.

What’s preventing kids in your town from entering college? It might be a lack of high-quality pre-K programs. It could be learning disabilities caused by lead poisoning or low high school graduation rates. Help your client to identify all the ways to tackle the problem, and then select the best way that matches his philanthropic passion.

4. Fear of Loss

Giving one’s hard-earned funds away can create a sense of loss. In addition to seeing the charitable reserves shrink (even if temporarily), some donors are incredibly reluctant to give up control over the decisions of how a gift may be spent.

In fact, they may hamstring a nonprofit’s ability to perform by placing too many restrictions on spending in order to maintain control. Donors who have created endowment-based giving vehicles may fear losing their legacy, creating tight restrictions on the decision-making ability of future endowment trustees.

How You Can Help: Just as in the stock market, fear of loss is triggered by uncertainty, so help your clients do their homework to determine the gift recipients that are the best match for their tolerance for risk or loss. Partner with a philanthropic advisor who can help them create a complete charitable giving plan that complements their overall investment strategy.

Charitable giving can bring satisfaction and joy to your clients. With a little guidance, they will be well on their way to philanthropic impact.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and author of the forthcoming book “Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform Giving.” Learn more at putnam-consulting.com.

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