How to Find Your Philanthropic Passion

With so many good causes out there, it can be difficult to crystallize your vision for how you’d like to make the world a better place. Donating to charity in a significant way takes planning on its own, but before you even get there, how do you pick out of the more than 1.5 million nonprofits in America that need funding?

The key, says Coco Kou, associate director of research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, is exactly what she specializes in: research. That might sound cut-and-dried, or even worse, boring, but Kou says it can be an enjoyable and self-reflective process.

Kou recommends asking yourself questions such as:

  • What makes me interested in philanthropy in the first place?
  • What is a childhood memory of giving or volunteering?
  • What values do I want to pass onto the next generation?
  • Are there any special life experiences who have shaped who we are today?

“Because we all define philanthropy differently, those kinds of questions can help us clarify how we get to this point and what are important values, individually and to our family as well,” Kou says.

Often, Kou says, people are drawn to charities that share similarities with their own life. This could be based on religion, community or something involving a cause that has affected their own life.

“What we tend to see at the Philanthropy Centre is that people tend to give to what they know,” says Sarah H. McGraw, who works as a philanthropy advisor at The Philanthropy Centre at J.P. Morgan Private Bank. “Many philanthropists tend to give back to the immediate needs in their community or areas of interest. They’re looking to reflect their own experience and help others who are going through similar experiences.”

Being able to identify an organization or charitable need that speaks to you helps create “a sense of association or belonging,” Kou says, and can help you feel more connected to the work.

“There’s a range of issues that are competing for your time and funds, so finding a cause that speaks to you is really important to make sure you’ll feel committed and motivated over the long term,” says McGraw.

A good way to find out what some of those issues that speak to you are is by using online giving campaigns, Kou says.

“For someone who’s trying to figure out the causes they feel most passionate about, those can serve as a good starting point,” Kou says. “Reading through those stories can help us identify what we feel strongly related to. Those stories can help us better understand ourselves and our motivations more.”

Understanding your own motivations for starting a philanthropic career is also a big part of finding a cause that speaks to you.

“Is it for personal interest? Family values? Wanting to spend more time with family? These reasons lead to different options and choices,” Kou says. “I would say follow your heart, but I kind of feel like that’s oversimplified suggestion. Philanthropy is a matter of both the heart and the head.”

Using your gut instincts to guide your passions plus your analytical head to achieve the best results is the key to effective giving.

“We know that good intentions don’t always lead to good results, necessarily, but I do think as a starting point the passion is the key,” Kou says.

But one of the big pitfalls in getting involved with philanthropic work is transitioning from that passionate, reactive giving to more thoughtful donations that can have a longer-lasting impact.

“The initial gut reaction is to give out of the checkbook,” McGraw says. “[But] the impact of those types of gifts can be difficult to quantify if these kind of checkbook donations are small relative to a broader cause a philanthropist cares about.”

At the Philanthropy Centre, McGraw says, a large part of what advisors do is help budding philanthropists crystalize a vision and a more organized approach to giving that can help you ultimately feel a greater connection to a cause.

It’s important not to rely solely on either volunteering or monetary donations, Kou says. A combination of both can be crucial in understanding the larger picture of an organization’s vision. But that being said, research suggests that donating time rather than money can lead to a stronger affinity to a cause.

“When we think about time, it’s more about experiences, and that leads to more emotion,” Kou says. “When we think about money, we think about how we utilize resources to achieve certain goals and that’s more of an analytical mindset.

The emotional mindset creates a stronger social bond and sense of happiness. That also explains why we feel more satisfied after volunteering somewhere versus writing a big check to an organization. We have a stronger warm glow, basically.”

This is not to discount the idea of a financial contribution, however. McGraw stresses the importance of developing a relationship with an organization if you’re planning on making a significant monetary donation. If you plan on working with an organization for some time, make sure there’s an open line of communication to help you connect with the nonprofit and set realistic expectations, as well as a broader approach to giving.

“Think through what outcomes are proportional to the size of the gift that’s being made,” McGraw says. “And stay involved. Particularly if you’re planning on making a significant gift.”

Being able to work with a nonprofit partner to talk about updates and what changes are being made (and what aren’t) can be a great way to get more involved with the process. It might even help you eventually step outside the bounds of just monetary giving — McGraw stresses the idea of bringing other skills to the table, whether it’s business acumen or experience in the field of charity work.

“What other experience and skills do you have that can help the organization in a holistic view beyond financial support?” McGraw says.

Ultimately, you have to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight, even when you see stories in the news about the ACLU receiving millions in donations over a single weekend. Real change takes time to effect, and philanthropy requires patience.

“These are really complex problems. These aren’t things that will necessarily be solved overnight or with one gift,” McGraw says. “Take that broader view that there can be incremental changes along the way as a result of the gift you’re making.”

If you’re really serious about getting into fundraising, there are also professional sources that you can access. The Kellogg Executive Education Programs at Northwestern University offer options in nonprofit finance, fundraising for school leaders, fundraising and marketing.

When it comes down to it, real philanthropic passion starts when you do. You just have to be willing to dive in and really work to get involved with a charity that speaks to you.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” McGraw says. “Don’t be afraid. Even the most committed donors we worked with struggled to define their vision. Part of it is just getting started.”