January 29, 1994

Generosity’s Best Practices

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It’s good to know about the different forms and channels of generosity, whether traditional or newer, and the multiple benefits they can produce. But there’s something even more important than the channels through which generosity flows, and that is how the flow happens within those forms. Just as businesses across industries share certain best practices that aid them in their striving for profits, so all sorts of diverse organizations that are effectively engaging in the work of generosity tend to make some similar choices about how they do whatever it is they do.
Are there really similarities between a nonprofit hospital in Indiana, an evangelistic Christian ministry in Central America, and a legal team trying to root out the sex trade in Thailand? It turns out, there are. Generosity can thrive in just about any channel with the help of the following insights, guidelines, and collective right practices. Here are three universal best practices.

1. Who’s the hero?

It’s easy for big donors, celebrity spokespeople, or the leaders of businesses and nonprofits to want to attract the spotlight of attention toward themselves. Look at me! Look at what we’re doing! Many have made this mistake—and have been surprised to find their names stinking like yesterday’s gym socks with the very people whose favor they sought.
Because the spotlight is pointing the wrong way.
The hero isn’t the do-gooder; the hero is the one who is the object of the good that is being done. That should have always been the case, but sadly, it has not. Yet whatever tolerance for self-serving publicity may once have existed within the realm of generosity is fast evaporating. And this is true regardless of the type or size of the giving institution.
The spotlight has moved to a new spot on the stage, and it looks slimy to bring the attention back over to you after the entire cultural audience has shifted their gaze. The world is in rapt attention to the needs on the ground—the end point of those who are starving, marginalized, underutilized, and otherwise hurting. And so smart leaders shape the narrative of their organizations so that the focus isn’t on an organization doing good but on the recipient of that good. If an organization tries to make itself the protagonist of the narrative, they will lose their generosity cred.
Of course, if yours is a company engaging in generosity marketing, or a nonprofit hoping to raise your profile, you want some attention for yourself. And here’s where it gets dicey. You have to be careful, but as long as you never forget who the real hero is, you can get some indirect—and surprisingly powerful—attention for yourself.
Consider how AT&T handled the original TOMS Shoes commercial. At first the commercial is all about the shoe giveaway program. You don’t see the AT&T logo or hear the company’s name mentioned until twenty-eight seconds into the thirty-second commercial.
Is using your leverage for someone else instead of yourself risky? It might be. Just maybe you’ll be casting your bread on the water and will never see a crumb of it again. But usually it comes back. In today’s business of generosity, what’s really risky is insisting on making the most of your leverage for yourself.

2. Organic tastes better.

There’s a second best practice any generosity organization can incorporate in its operating procedures. And that is making sure that the generosity fits comfortably with the organization’s i.d.
Attempts to do good that are artificial, ill-fitting, or self-serving create a bad taste in the public’s mouth. But if a generosity program is organic to the organization that is doing it, it will be more likely to survive and thrive. In other words, the generosity work needs to be core to the organization’s mission, model, product lines, or service. Toy R Us works with Toys for Tots at Christmastime. 9Lives cat food supports cat shelters. Philadelphia Cream Cheese is partnering with nonprofits trying to end child hunger.
Now, the causes an organization supports doesn’t necessarily have to be directly related to what it does. For example, a grocery chain can fund cancer research, or a tech company can get behind a local zoo. But the organization that’s doing the good work had at least better become knowledgeable and committed about that work, merging with it.
Established companies that genuinely want to do good, as opposed to just looking good, can do it. But it may require some retooling of their ways. Robin Weekley Bruce of the Acton MBA says, “Backwards integration is the next iteration. Leaders are now having to make their values consistent through out the company. Coke says they are about happiness and sustainability, so the question is, are your employees and supply-chain relationships happy?” No longer is there a one-spot audit for generosity that focuses on the end game. A company’s ability to be fully integrated into generosity takes a start-to-finish transformation, one that might take time and certainly will take a lot of effort. But it is possible. Even in a well-established, highly traditional company, some motivated intrapreneurs can spawn a socially conscious approach that will eventually overtake the whole institution.

3. Force multiplier.

In the military, a “force multiplier” is a strategy or technology that enables a fighting unit to have the same effect as a larger force would have without the “multiplier.” This is what I picture when I think of the third best practice: collaboration.
Too often in the past, organizations engaged in generosity have been disconnected and competitive, even (or perhaps especially) when pursuing the same good. This may have been helpful when it came to an organization’s self-promotion, and it even may have opened up some spaces for innovation, but it also put limits on what could be accomplished.
Pamela Slim and Michele Woodward say, “Collaboration is the new competition.” And thankfully, today more than ever, leaders in the business of generosity are building bridges between their silos. They’re joining forces to create a greater impact on social problems. For example, the African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnerships bring together the government of Botswana, the Gates Foundation, and pharmaceutical giant Merck to enhance Botswana’s national response to AIDS.
Collaboration is a big idea to help solve many of the ills of our globe. When people in the business of generosity pool their expertise, ideas, and connections, and coordinate their efforts, it’s the difference between addition and multiplication. Both the givers and the receivers win.
More than that, collaboration doesn’t cost much. It’s usual not hard to do. Just about any organization of any size, with any type of social focus, can do it.
An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” Collaboration may be most obvious no-brainer among generosity’s best practices. We all want to go far.

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