In recent years it has become evident that philanthropy is not a commodity. It’s not defined by market supply and demand, but rather the result of a donor’s personal journey driven by values and beliefs. So, who defines philanthropic success? And, if one subscribes to the axiom that success is in the eye of the beholder, then the question becomes, who is the beholder?

Who has the primary responsibility of defining success and determining the metrics with which to establish what success means?

  • the philanthropist who gives?
  • the organization that accepts?
  • the beneficiary who receives?

Perhaps there’s a strong case to be made that the duty to define success falls squarely on the philanthropist who gives.

Currently there is a significant dialogue taking place in the nonprofit profession as to how to define an organization’s philanthropic impact. It’s both healthy and timely in these current uncertain economic times. It is also noteworthy to add to this discussion what role the donor plays in defining that philanthropic impact. Especially since it’s the donor who has the freedom to choose when to give, how to give, and to whom to give.

Setting Personal Standards of Excellence

Authors Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman in their book Give Smart encourage donors to follow a process of inquiry around six questions, one being, “What am I accountable for?” And in writing about accountability and characteristics that distinguish philanthropists, they conclude;

“…if you want to narrow the gap between your aspirations and the results your giving achieves, you must be willing to set your own standard of excellence and hold yourself accountable for meeting it.”

Encouraging An Open Dialogue

Such a reality comes with great responsibility. Donors must seek good advice and set self-imposed standards of excellence. This way they’ll achieve as much impact as possible with the resources available. It is virtuous to expect the same effort of those who accept the donation. To achieve such excellence requires communication, transparency, honesty, and trust from both participants.

Let the donor dialogue begin!

This blog originally published September 24, 2013 and has been updated for relevance.