It’s said that becoming rich means never eating another bad meal and never telling another unfunny joke. On the back of my experience this week, at an event with 2,000 fundraisers and a handful of rich philanthropists, I’d suggest it also means never being asked another decent question.
The star turn at this year’s ‘Raising Funds from the Rich’ conference, held in London on the 14th October, was Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin business empire and a man with his thumbs in a lot of philanthropic pies. His current charitable interests range from climate change to health and education in Africa to ‘The Elders’ initiative, which harnesses the moral authority of global statespeople like Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson to intervene in intractable conflicts.
By the time Branson arrived to give his speech, delegates had heard from a range of speakers addressing the central question: How to raise funds from the rich. The advice was pretty consistent and covered the same 3 good points: (1) do your research to identify people who are wealthy enough to give big sums and have an interest in your cause, (2) take your time to build mutually respectful relationships, and (3) don’t make the ask until the donor is engaged with your cause. Unfortunately, this advice was ignored by delegates during the Q&A following Branson’s speech, whose ‘questions’ were almost all variations on the theme of: “Please give my charity some money”.
In answer to the riddle posed at the top of this post: it’s clearly a bad idea to ask a billionaire for a donation when your only qualification for doing so is that you happen to have grabbed the microphone. But reader, they did. Three days later I am still utterly perplexed as to why anyone could have thought it a good idea to make a pitch for funds rather than seize the chance to ask a more searching question about Branson’s philanthropic journey. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to learn what got him started? how he decides what to support? how he decides how much to give? what’s been his biggest philanthropic mistake?
But worse than this missed opportunity is the terrible impression we must have made on a man who has the ability to pump, literally, billions into our sector should he follow the lead of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett by transferring almost all his fortune into philanthropy. We know that one barrier to giving is donors’ fears (however misplaced) that charities lack the nous to spend their money wisely. This fear is especially prevalent amongst businesspeople who suspect our sector of being full of nice-but-ineffective people. I doubt that Branson left that event impressed by what he heard or thinking he’d spent time with people who could be entrusted with his money.
Of course it’s in every fundraiser’s bones to seize opportunities to promote their cause. But I think we also have a responsibility to advance the reputation of the charity sector as a whole. Asking for money in this setting was not just unlikely to succeed, toe-curling to listen to and a missed opportunity to ask decent questions. It may even have spoilt the chance of encouraging Branson to gear up from being a good philanthropist to a great one.