By Kathleen A. Provost, CFRE, MAdEd

As a professional fundraiser, , I sometimes wonder how to better engage with key stakeholders to build meaningful relationships. After all we are in the “business of building relationships”! I don’t just mean to engage with someone — I am thinking of a meaningful exchange with another individual. When I reflect on how we can have these meaningful engagements, I wonder if history, at times, repeats itself to offer us the possibility of learning from the past. Or maybe it is possible that by being really attentive to the lesson the present offers us, we can improve how we engage and build genuine relationships?

As professionals in the field of philanthropy, I do believe we can learn from historical and global events that have fundamentally influenced how we do our work. I compare these “historical events” to a pendulum, that has two dominant forces acting at all times during the course of its motion. There is the force of gravity that acts downward, pushing towards a state of rest. And there is tension force acting upward which is pulling towards the pivot point of the pendulum.

We seem to learn in the same manner. Once we have tried an idea for a period of time, we tend to come to a state of rest and then “push the idea” away and try new things. At times however, we push too far and distance ourselves from all the bad and good aspects related to this idea. This then forces us to “pull back” and go back to some of the good items from this previous idea. But whether it is past or present historical events that shape the field of philanthropy, I believe to learn from an idea or an experience we must practice active listening. Active listening will help us to better engage with one another.

Historical moments
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending my own graduation. I completed a Masters in Adult Education in 2021; however, there was no in-person convocation due to COVID. At the time, we had a virtual ceremony, but two years later I was given the opportunity to attend an in-person event. During my May 2023 convocation, Chancellor John Peacock’s speech reminded us to practice “active listening”.

But Chancellor Peacock was talking about a different “active listening”. Peacock told us that as we are coming back together in a post-COVID time and as we are coming out of an isolation era, we must be present for each other. He talked about how we should show compassion and be engaged in meaningful ways with other individuals. In this post pandemic moment, Peacock insisted that we should re-learn how to engage, and therefore take the time to build genuine relationships. For me, this precise moment offered me a valuable lesson that may not have occurred two years earlier. As a professional fundraiser, I was reminded of a different “active listening” that goes further than simply listening to one’s needs. If I really engage, in a genuine manner, this may shape my relationship with my donors and my partners.

Historical events
In the April edition of Philanthropy Journal, my friend Hilary Pearson, author and co-chair of the Canadian Federal Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector, reviewed Rhodri Davies’ book entitled What Is Philanthropy For? In doing so, she brought to light how Davies presented some historical events as having contributed to the evolution of philanthropy.

Rhodri Davies, a UK commentator, historian of philanthropy, and fellow at the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, defines philanthropy not as a stand-alone concept but in relation to social values and political and economic systems. In his book, Davies presents a broader definition of modern philanthropy. He states that: “philanthropy today is a major force shaping how we interact with each other”.

Davies illustrates historical events that shaped philanthropy throughout the centuries. He points to specific periods such as the Judeo-Christian tradition of giving alms as a displacement of the ancient Greek concept of philanthropy as a “civic virtue.” Then, he recognizes the secularization of charity which occurred after the Reformation and the Enlightenment events of the 17th century. Davies goes on to argue that the distinction between philanthropy and charity became sharper in the 19th and 20th centuries by focusing on a rational and “scientific” approach in an effort to address the root causes of poverty, disease, and ill health.

In his book, Davies challenges us to move away from asking “what philanthropy is for”, to rather question “how philanthropy can be made better?” Though philanthropy cannot be a substitute for justice, Davies does claim that it can be an effective tool to further justice. Consequently, philanthropy fundamentally influences how we build relationships.

Whether we come together by “civic virtue” or to use private resources for the benefit of societal issues, the way we chose to take part in “making the world a better place”, at times referred to as a human-centred approach, will influence how we bring individuals together and engage them with a shared objective.

Historical movements
Let me first define what I believe a “movement” is. For me, a movement refers to the act of rallying individuals in support of a process to change a situation or change the way something happens. Throughout history, movements have had immense economic, social, and political impact in our lives. Movements have also fashioned the way we do fundraising. Individuals like Karl Max, Martin Luther King, and Emily Murphy as well as Abrar Mechmechia, have all engaged others in a common purpose.

Rachel Chen, an audience strategist for Indiegraf, and a freelance writer, recently wrote an article entitled Building back better means healing together. Her article demonstrated how a pandemic recovery plan came from a movement to address mental health for the hardest-hit marginalized youth. Chen’s article highlights the story of Abrar Mechmechia, who during the first pandemic summer of 2020, worried about COVID’s long-term impact on mental health. Having lived in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war Mechmechia wanted to start a support group for BIPOC youth, refugees, and newcomers going through a tough time due to the pandemic. In November 2020, with a few volunteer friends and some limited funds, Mechmechia launched a small support group to raise awareness about COVID’s impact on marginalized youth. This quickly evolved into the need to co-create, with youth, a mental health recovery plan.

By February 2021, the “build back better” campaign was launched calling on the Canadian government to include a mental health recovery plan with youth. Mental health issues became an election issue, with several parties including mental health service reforms in their platforms. This movement prompted by the pandemic is, yet another example of how global events can bring individuals to engage together with a common objective. Illustrating the power of active listening.

Historical legacies
At times, we carry forward previously inherited practices that have a direct impact on the way we engage with one another essentially influencing how we do our work. Last month, Fraser Green wrote a piece on planned giving in the Hilborn Charity eNews. Green stated that “the thinking that came up with planned giving dates back to military management circa WW2, and industrial management in the 1950s and 1960s.” In his article, Green clearly demonstrates how historical events have fashioned the way we practice philanthropy. He goes on to state that in the mid-1980s, we (fundraising professionals) began leaving the industrial economy and migrating to an information age, a digital marketplace and a more creative economy. However, to be truly attentive and “actively listening” when we engage with our donors, Green challenges us to change our thinking, and in the case of a planned gift to distance ourselves from a transaction involving money. It is true that certain moments in history have shaped our concept of planned giving and have informed the way we work. Nonetheless, Green invites us to alter our vocabulary and talk more about legacy giving. In his own words: “legacies are all about relationships and a deeply human act of love towards the future”.

My final thoughts
There have been great advancements made through historical learnings in the field of philanthropy, yet I think the pendulum continues to move. Charitable giving was once a “civic obligation” and at times changed to address social injustices or realities. Whatever is the reason behind the gesture of making a gift, the intent is usually “to make the world a better place.” Hence, for true philanthropy to occur, as professionals in fundraising, no matter what our motivation is to raise funds, we must remain attentive to our donors’ intent.

We have learnt to use data, as referenced earlier, but let’s not “push” the pendulum too far away from a human-centred approach towards a scientific approach. Some of our learnings on how to engage in a meaningful way have come through history and have forced us, as professionals, to continuously adapt in response to our donors’ intent with their philanthropy. This has influenced the way we do fundraising. We can credit historical events and movements for the evolution of philanthropy, as a concept, but as Green said: “we need to focus on the relationship with the donor and not the gift transaction”. We need to make sure our learnings from history shape how we engage in a meaningful way if we are to attain common goals together.

Kathleen A. Provost, CFRE is currently the Vice President, Philanthropy and Communications at United for Literacy (previously Frontier College), a national organization with over 120 years of frontline experience in Canada, offering free tutoring and mentoring to adult, youth, and children who need literacy and numeracy support. Kathleen has over 25 years of experience in the charitable sector. She has been a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) since 2007 and a long-time member and volunteer for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). She writes this column exclusively for each issue of Foundation Magazine.

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