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“If you help somebody with $100 million make $5 million more, does that really change their life?” That was the question former investment banker Al Mueller, president of Excellence in Giving, asked himself before making the transition to philanthropic advising. “I thought the answer to that question was no, not very much. And I reversed it and said, ‘If I could help people with $100 million give away $5 million, and do it thoughtfully and to causes that really mattered to them, then would that change their life?’ I thought the answer was probably yes, and probably also their family and the lives of recipients.” Want to know how you can make your own giving transformational? Mueller has suggestions that can help donors at all levels put an action plan in place.
As Curly said in City Slickers, the secret of life is one thing, just one thing. The same applies to giving. Find that one thing. When starting with a new client, we set up a long interview to get to know them. During the discovery process for one client, she shared her love for the underdog. But when I looked at her portfolio, it had nothing related to the underdog, to which she responded, “That’s probably why I don’t really feel any joy or any satisfaction.” So fast-forward to now, we’ve researched and gotten her involved in a variety of underdog-specific causes. Now she has this personal connection, and that’s what keeps the flywheel turning. You want to do it again: “Show me another idea, this was incredible.”
People often say, “Oh, I’m a heart giver,” or “I’m a head giver.” It’s not either/or. It’s all. Bring your analytical skill into the mix but engage your heart with it. Because you’re about changing lives. But there are plenty of bad executions out there because the people who run a nonprofit are these bighearted people that don’t partner up with somebody who’s really good on the operational side. It’s a big mistake to check one or the other at the door. Do a little homework; don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask them before you give, not after. And remember, failure is not fatal.
Matching-gift programs, on average, get used by 20 percent of the employees who have access to them. I mean, that’s free money. That’s crazy to me. It’s crazy to think that my employer would give me a $500 matching gift, a $1,000 matching gift, and I wouldn’t find a cause for which I want to write my own check and get that same amount from them. Also, find some like-minded people to give with. If each person could write a $200 check, you are giving $1,000 together, and doing things together is fun.
One year, I took a family down to Guatemala to research different projects, including a group that taught kids how to play soccer and helped with their character development. The field they were playing on was a mess, filled with rocks and bottles, so I asked my client, “If you had your dream, what would you like to see happen here?” He responded, “If we had $600, we could have a welder build some stands, so parents could watch their kids play.” I asked him to think bigger. He came back with the idea of having stands on each side of the field for $1,200. Again, I told him to take some time and think about this dream. He came back a month later with a proposal to build a soccer stadium. It’s now one of only two FIFA-qualified soccer stadiums in Guatemala. Not all gifts will reach this size, but it’s a great example of how taking your time and asking the right questions about what an organization really needs can be transformational for both the organization and the donor. A very small gift could have a very, very meaningful impact in a person’s life.
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Excellence in Giving
Al Mueller is the president of Excellence in Giving, a participant in Fidelity Charitable's philanthropic advisor referral network, which can provide extensive sector knowledge and assist with a broad range of services, such as creating a detailed strategic plan for philanthropic impact and providing sector-specific research.
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