Not Your Hoity-Toity Philanthropist: How to engage with real high net worth donors

“The word ‘philanthropist’ still cracks me up because it sounds so hoity-toity…I’m not Rockefeller.”

This quotation was from one of the 33 individuals that our Center interviewed in 2008, all of whom had a giving capacity of approximately $1 million annually, which we defined to be ultra-high-net-worth philanthropists (UHNWPs). While the study reflected a small sample size, it also generated important insights on how to engage with donors who are in the position to make the largest financial contributions to philanthropy.

One surprising finding led to the title of the study—“I’m not Rockefeller”—a sentiment echoed by many of the UHNWPs, who expressed varying levels of identification with being defined by the term “philanthropist.” The study revealed that even the most generous of donors expressed doubts about the strategy of their giving. In addition, current evaluation metrics, such as overhead ratios, did not provide donors with the barometer they needed in order to understand the impact of their giving.

With this knowledge and additional findings from the study, Kat Rosqueta of the Center, Kathleen Noonan of the University of Wisconsin, and Miriam Shark of the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a follow-up article in The Foundation Review: “I’m Not Rockefeller: Implications for Major Foundations Seeking to Engage Ultra-High-Net-Worth Donors,” that works through what this knowledge means in terms of how foundations can have more focused and practical engagement with UHNWPs.

For this week’s blog post, we interviewed two of the authors of the study, who also happen to be founding members of our Center—Kat Rosqueta and Kathleen Noonan.

This is the first, and so far, only published study that the Center has done on the practice of philanthropy itself. Why did the Center decide to do this study?

Rosqueta: Our center was not created to study philanthropy. Instead, we have a mandate to create guidance that’s evidence-based and actionable. The only way for our work to be actionable is for it to be based on a better understanding of how ultra high net worth individuals approach their giving.

How has this study influenced how the Center provides material for donors?

Rosqueta: There are a lot of people out there who opine about what donors like and what they are looking for. One of our biggest takeaways from this study was how diverse donors’ approaches truly are, and how the same donor can choose different approaches depending on the issue, or the stage in that person’s life. We say: If you’ve talked with one donor—you’ve talked with one donor. Another takeaway was how influential a few sources of information can be—specifically, the mainstream media and peer donors. We’ve translated this into our work by investing in making our work accessible to the media when they cover social impact issues, particular with our Haiti and emergency food guidance resources, as well as through our donor education seminars.

Many of the UHNWP interviewed in the study expressed a desire to be more than check-writers – instead, they want to be engaged on an operational level and seen as advocates or community volunteers. However, they also expressed the constraints of time and expertise. Realistically, what are some ways that organizations that work with UHNWP can address both of these needs in order to help donors reach a satisfying middle ground between their levels of engagement and financial commitment?

Noonan: It is important to understand that donors that feel this way will not be satisfied by gala dinners, fundraisers, or annual meetings. They want a different experience that helps them understand the work of the organization better or that allows them to contribute directly to the mission. Organizations involved in any type of education or advocacy work might think about inviting donors like this to a conference or a lecture related to the organization’s work. For example, a UHNWP who has contributed to your educational non-profit might be invited to attend an educational conference with senior staff. The point is to engage them on the issues and to let them know that they are contributing to your organization because they care about the issues.

What is the key to successful relationships between UNHWPs and foundations?

Rosqueta: The trick will be to remember to focus on the social impact that both parties care about without narrowing definitions of success. If success, for either the individual donor or the foundation, means that I give to your things and you give to my things, then you miss the opportunity to actually collaborate. Co-investing is not the same as collaborating. Don’t limit yourself by narrowing definitions of collaboration.