This simple refocus can change your giving—and boost your joy

Elderly couple holding a box of food and wearing protective masks.

One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to sit down with donors and put our cards on the table—literally.

Everywhere I go, I carry a special deck of cards with me. Each card is printed with a potential motivation for giving—a value the giver would like to see more of in the world, such as innovation, resilience or equality.

These cards spark deep conversations with donors about what’s behind their desire to create positive change in the world. We work together to narrow the deck down to just five cards: Their core values. Their hopes for the future.

I’ve seen as many unique combinations of values as I’ve seen donors—but one card always ends up on the table: Compassion.

It may sound like a no-brainer—all giving is compassionate, right? —but digging deeper into this term can energize your giving and generate even more satisfaction for everyone involved.

Defining what compassion-based giving is—and isn’t

It’s important to separate our definition of compassion here from the idea of pity, or even sympathy. Compassion is about empathy, care and concern for your fellow humans, about feeling the suffering of others in your local and global community and wanting to relieve it. This flows directly into the literal translation of philanthropy: “love of mankind.”

On the surface, philanthropy seems simple: Give as much money as you’re able to the causes you care about. Make sure the nonprofits you choose are effective at creating positive change. Done. But I see donors facing an increasingly complicated series of questions as they dive into giving: How do you prioritize the aspects of helping others that can’t be measured? How do you expand your thinking beyond impact to proactively think about the whole picture?

In recent years, we’ve been focused on impact and evidenced-based strategies as a philanthropic community, and rightly so—we measure data because it’s important, because we want to channel funds in a way that does the most good for the most people. But in 2020, amid multiple ongoing crises, we’re all being challenged to balance the urgency of the moment with a values-based approach that helps our communities holistically. With that focus on people over numbers, the goal of giving becomes how well you can care for others. It’s a subtle shift, but one that I see—time and time again—yielding both greater impact and greater joy. Because it’s the side of philanthropy that taps into what made us want to give in the first place.

As 2020’s multitude of challenges hit the world in waves, we’ve seen the compassion-based mindset in action through the giving choices of Fidelity Charitable® donors. With a more than 30% increase in grants overall, donors are focused on making both their neighbors and their global community members a priority.

Health and human services were the top grantmaking sectors in 37 states in 2020—up from 20 states in 2019—with grantmaking on track to stay at those levels through the end of the year. In one of the most striking statistics at Fidelity Charitable®, we saw an unprecedented 348% increase in donor-recommended grants to address food insecurity through November 2020. I’ve been particularly touched by our donors’ commitment to supporting the increasingly difficult lives of healthcare workers in the pandemic, with a 16% increase in donor-recommended grants, with some donors giving directly—like the donor who, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City, paid for hotel rooms for any healthcare worker traveling to New York City from out of state to help. Also, 61% of our donors tell us they want to help people suffering from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

This reflects one of the things I love about working with our donors here at Fidelity Charitable—these are individuals and families seeking to help their communities, both local and global, leading from the heart.

Head versus heart—how they can help each other

I have always believed that how you give is as important—or perhaps even more important—than what you give. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see our donors living out that compassion-based approach through their giving during this difficult year.

In this season of giving, during a time when Feeding America predicts that more than 50 million Americans may experience hunger because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I challenge you to re-examine how you define impact. Rather than limiting your definition of an effective outcome to a prescribed set of numbers you need to see in a spreadsheet, the lens of compassion can refocus you on your priorities and expand your thinking. Compassion-based thinking makes sure we remember and value that intangible side of helping others alongside the financial: The emotional support, reassurance and community we all need to make it through the world healthy, successful and safe.

So, when you are thinking about how to give, try listening to your compassion: Use your empathy to drive action by immersing in your community and seeking out opportunities to care for others. Continue to engage with nonprofits by listening to their staff and recommending unrestricted grants. Stay focused on the core humanitarian needs of our vulnerable populations—food, shelter, safety and health. During difficult times, we all need more warm human connection in our lives and in our giving. Trust your heart—and put compassion into action.

Elaine Martyn


Elaine Martyn
Senior Vice President
Private Donor Group

Elaine Martyn’s career has centered on building programs around family philanthropy, mentorship and leadership, impact investing, international grant-making and values-based giving. She has worked with major donors to support the advancement of health and human rights through medical education, social justice, diversity policy, and advocacy in the United States, United Kingdom, and Asia through her work at the Global Fund for Women, Refugees International, King’s College London, the British Medical Association, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School, and as a Special Advisor on Philanthropy to the U.S. State Department.

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