Giving Thanks

This is surely the most challenging year that nonprofits have faced in a generation, forced to struggle with the chaos of Covid-19 during a time of great political turmoil. But in the midst of these many changes some things remain the same: Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and a month later the year will draw to a close. It’s a signal to take stock of 2020, to put plans in place for the last month of the year, and for your transition into 2021.

For most nonprofits, November and December are crucial for fundraising. But the economic impact of Covid has been unevenly felt. Many large donors have weathered the disruption with only minor financial disruption. But lower-wage and minority workers, particularly in the service industries, have taken a beating, and are not in a position to offer cash donations this year. Fundraising strategies need to be adjusted accordingly.

Both Sides of the Street

When I talk about nonprofits, I’m fortunate that I can bring to the discussion the experience of a donor to small nonprofits, as well as the experience of someone who has served on the boards of larger nonprofit organizations throughout my professional life. I see both sides of the street.

Among other organizations, I’m particularly proud of my involvement, over several decades, with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), in various roles, including serving on the TNC Global Board. I remain involved with TNC, and very active with both the Northern Sierra Partnership and with Cornell University’s alumni programs.

When I concluded my tenure at Applied Materials, I realized that philanthropy was the main activity I wanted to focus on for the next phase of my life. My wife Becky and I have always shared an interest in public service and philanthropy. In 1993, well before I left Applied, we had started our own family foundation.

We were not interested in starting or running nonprofits, just in identifying good ones and supporting their work. As we paid more attention to the nonprofit sector, Becky and I saw differences in how organizations managed their resources. We recognized that we wanted to provide more than just money. We were inclined to work more directly with nonprofits involved in the spaces where we wanted to make a difference, and we became active and involved givers — almost like investors.

A Humble Approach to Giving

Friends and colleagues often ask me how I assess the effectiveness of a nonprofit. I share with them that I have the highest regard for organizations that have:

  1. Strong leadership, with a bold vision and a strong plan for implementation.
  2. A clear mission that spells out what the organization seeks to accomplish and why it’s important.
  3. A culture of transparency regarding finances, governance, program evaluation, outcomes, and impact.
  4. Strong partnerships with their board, donors, volunteers, other nonprofits, businesses, and government.

My wife Becky and I have encouraged our family, foundation staff, and fellow donors to apply those same principles in their philanthropic efforts or when considering where to volunteer or to serve on a nonprofit board.

No matter the size or type of contribution, take a humble approach to giving. Trusting a nonprofit’s leadership and contributing unrestricted dollars to support their whole mission is a sign of respect. While an organization’s budget may have line items for people and infrastructure separate from program costs, they can’t operate without both. Investing in leadership development — for both staff and board — is an impactful contribution to help sustain and grow an organization.

Both individual donors and institutional philanthropies must invest strategically, sufficiently, and over the long-term. Nonprofits and donors become a team when they think of doing “the whole job” together.

With best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving,

Jim Morgan