Bringing More Buffets to the Table

While Gates and Buffet undoubtedly value the outpouring of guidance they are receiving in wake of The Really Big Gift, the horse is already out of the barn on this one. Having utterly transformed their respective industries, these icons will act on their own strong opinions to revolutionize education and healthcare.

That being said, this historic event does raise urgent questions about what the Third Sector could do to engage more wealthy individuals. On one hand, nonprofits might continue battling one another with funds going to those which are most connected and most resourced, rather than those that deliver the greatest quality. On the other hand, while this is admittedly a high bar, R & D we have conducted for the past six years on behalf of America's more than 600 community foundations demonstrate the imperative because:

< More Americans are wealthy. According to the Wall Street Journal (5/20/05), the number of super wealthy in the U.S. has surged, with 430,000 households now worth more than $10 million. That's up from 65,000, adjusted for inflation, in 1989. Critically needed new resources could be tapped if even a fraction became meaningfully engaged in questions of how their dollars might do good better.

They want more from their giving. In his excellent work on the motivations of major donors, John Schervish of Boston College's Social Welfare Research Institute points out "Although everyone who gives a gift wants it to make a difference, those who make a big gift want it to make a big difference." This includes varied opportunities for involvement as well as a full accounting of outcomes.

They are getting harder to reach. Wealthy people make it their business to limit access to those who relieve them of it. This trend is likely to continue as the wealth management industry floods the market with products aimed toward its' most profitable segment. Community foundations have responded to this fact by co-marketing their philanthropy services through partnerships with financial service advisors who are paid to be vigilant in the role as the "gatekeepers", at the same time ever mindful of how they can add value to client relationships.

Current approaches aren't scalable. At one end of the spectrum are national donor advised funds that, while proving their potential to attract new donors, provide few tools to inform more strategic giving. The middle is dominated by established and emerging intermediaries that can deliver intriguing, responsive information in a face-to-face setting but the costs for such high-touch service limit reach. At the other end of the spectrum are intensive, peer-based workshops that focus on increasing the impact of a subset of existing donors. What we don't have are scalable methods for to increase donor engagement more broadly across the high net worth demographic.

While two iconic entrepreneurs have staked their own new claims, applications are still being accepted for those visionaries who will revolutionize the ways that wealthy donors connect their big gifts to causes they care about, ensuring that Buffet's is only one of very many.

Caroline Heine

Posted at 2:04 PM, Aug 17, 2006 in High Net Worth Donors | Permalink | Comment