Meeting Individual Donors

Coffee Dates in Seattle

Linda Breneman

In the Grantmakers in the Arts boardroom, when my fellow board members speak, I sometimes feel like my little mutt Duffy must feel when I say "Go outside, Duffy, and take care of business."

"Blah blah blah, Duffy, blah, blah, blah."

Okay, I'm exaggerating. I understand some of what my colleagues say. More than Duffy, for instance. (Duffy is part cocker spaniel, and there is truth to the saying "dumb as a cocker spaniel.") But I am running to catch up, just as Duffy on her four-inch legs scurries after me on a brisk walk.

I am the only person in the room who identifies herself as an individual donor. I am an amateur in a roomful of professionals. Many of these folks work for big foundations. They don't just read the research — they write it. I am a dilettante in two senses of the word: an amateur (a neophyte, a greenhorn, a rookie) and a learner (an apprentice, an aspirant, a recruit).

I've been thinking, though, in my aspiring way, about the individual donor question. Here in Seattle (as in many places across the country), thousands of people in their twenties, thirties, and forties have gotten rich on stock options. Many of these young people want to give money away during their lifetimes, but they don't necessarily want to endow a foundation. It may be more tax-efficient to skip the foundation endowment route and instead set aside a hefty amount to give away each year. These givers tend to write checks, give appreciated stock, and sock money away in a donor-advised fund at a community foundation or brokerage to distribute later. Often these young donors work at their giving, create plans and strategies, join giving circles, and attend classes.

I've been interested for some time in these people and others like them — individual donors of substantial net worth (say five million or more) — so I created a limited research project for myself. What you're reading right now is the research report, such as it is. You should know that the people in it are composites of real people, and the experiences are composites of real experiences. If I wrote about real people, I'd never get another coffee date in this town.

At Madison Park Starbucks — Making the Case
In Seattle's Madison Park, a neighborhood characterized by turn-of-the-century homes, hundred-year-old trees, views of Lake Washington, and a half-and-half mixture of old-money and new-money families, the Starbucks is a popular crossroads. It feels lively and soothing at the same time — something about its cherry floors, maple tables and chairs, oak-framed windows, translucent beige draperies, and hunter-green walls. Behind the babble and buzz — people conversing, milk steaming, espresso tamping — bee bop saxophone flows like a meandering waterway. On a Monday morning, I drink a latte and wait for my meeting. At the dozen or so tables, I see moms and kids, solitary writers and readers, earnest twenty-somethings pitching venture capitalists, and nonprofit emissaries making the ask.

At the next table three people enact just such a scene: a man in his forties, balding, with a face that reminds me of a hawk, dressed in running shorts and a sweatshirt; a woman in her fifties, red-haired and substantial; and a woman in her twenties, neat and bespectacled. The man, whom I recognize as the former CEO of a telecommunications company, is being asked for a donation. The red-haired woman, the board president of an arts education organization, teases him: “No, that was last year. You're up again.” They all laugh. And then there is a quiet statement from the man. I can't hear what he says. What I can hear is the effect: “Thank you so much.” “That's incredibly generous. Really. Thanks.”

It must have been a big one.

I average two coffee dates a week at this Starbucks — mostly to meet with hard-working, altruistic folks who want something: money from my foundation or my checking account; my participation on a board or committee; or an introduction to another donor I know, like Marianne the Tech Retiree.

I often meet Marianne the Tech Retiree here. She is active in Social Venture Partners (SVP), a giving circle founded by high-tech entrepreneurs. She serves on grant allocation committees and takes the lead on relationships with grantees. I know her because several years ago she and I went on an SVP site visit at an after-school arts program for kids. The arts program didn't get the SVP grant (much coveted, big, and multi-year), but Marianne liked it, so she began making substantial personal donations to it every year. She was impressed by its businesslike management, by its values that connected social justice with creative expression, and by its kid-centered but rigorous teaching. Marianne is a former Microsoft executive, married to a former Starbucks executive. I'd guess the couple is worth about $50 million.

I didn't much like Marianne when I first met her.

One of my faults is that I dislike most people at first. They have a gruff manner, or they laugh too loudly, or they are too quiet. Why can't I give people a chance? Why can't I see past the rough edges, idiosyncrasies, or defenses to the human being underneath? When I first met my best friend, I almost caused her to run away with my aloof, skeptical manner. Thank God she was able to see past our differences in temperament and background, or I would have missed one of the most important, pleasurable, nurturing, and challenging relationships in my life.

When I first met Marianne, I pegged her as bright but too blunt. She took leaps in her thinking that were sometimes too high or wide for others to follow. Since then, I've seen her moderate her manner. She has developed into one of the most committed and thoughtful philanthropists in the city. She has run a capital campaign for a social service agency, served on boards of large and small nonprofits, established a foundation, and created scholarships, all while raising three kids and training for mountain climbing expeditions.

There's a writer named Julie Salamon (Rambam's Ladder, A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give) who explores the difference between charity and philanthropy. Marianne is a good example of a person who made the transition from charity to philanthropy in a short time and in a big way, going from addressing an immediate need (charity), to undertaking a series of actions that addresses the source of that need (philanthropy).

When I was growing up, I had a few casual experiences with charity and no direct experience with philanthropy. Most Sundays my dad dropped a five-dollar bill in the offertory basket at Christ the King Catholic Church. When I was thirteen I entered a walk-a-thon and collected a few bucks for every mile I walked. I don't even remember now what the cause was. My only exposure to the concept of philanthropy came through Sister Joseph Michael, who made us study famous philanthropists in fifth-grade civics class. I picked Andrew Carnegie to write a report about, probably because I loved libraries — the ones I'd seen, anyway — the Richland Public Library and a bookmobile my rural cousins met every Tuesday on the gravel shoulder of the nearest blacktop road.

Andrew Carnegie's life was about as different from mine as any life could be. I was growing up in Richland, a town of 20,000 souls in Eastern Washington known chiefly for its devotion to making plutonium for nuclear weapons. My dad worked at Hanford Nuclear Reservation as an instrument technician. In Richland's social system, since Dad didn't have a degree of any kind, much less a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics like some dads I knew, our family wasn't anywhere near the top. We were somewhere near the lower-middle. For most of my childhood, my family of six lived paycheck to paycheck in rental houses with too few bedrooms and one bathroom. We always had plenty of good food and a basic house and enough gas money to go for Sunday drives in our Chevy station wagon, but we never had fancy clothes or vacations to anywhere — even across the mountains to Seattle — unless our destination had a relative who was willing to put us up. The form of charity I knew best was the cheerful reception, care, and feeding of traveling relatives.

There's nothing like seeing an immediate need and responding to it to make you feel good. But as I've grown and learned, I've become more interested in philanthropy — not so much giving handouts, but trying to become more organized, strategic, and forward-looking, like Andrew Carnegie, “for the benefit of all mankind.” It may not feel as good, but I'm convinced it does more good.

At Café Nordstrom Downtown — Crossing the Bridge
Every Nordstrom department store has a cafe or two, and the downtown flagship store is no exception. Here's the place to observe Seattle's Old Guard, the inheritors of timber and shipbuilding fortunes, sipping coffee or tea in their elegant coiffures, skirted suits, and matching pumps and purses. Deena the Straddler is comfortable here. In fact, she's comfortable everywhere in Seattle, from the Rainier Club (that former gentlemen's club where ties and jackets are required), to Vivace Café in Belltown (that hangout of techies where they couldn't care less what you wear).

Deena's short dark hair and tailored blazers give the impression of health, practicality, and style, and preserve an echo of her Boston childhood and early career as a New York publishing executive. Now she devotes all her time to philanthropy. She's on the boards of a children's hospital, a university, an art museum, a women's giving circle, and a small theater. She lives with her two teenaged children in an estate in The Highlands, a gated community overlooking Puget Sound where there are no street addresses. (Her address is Deena Z., The Highlands.) She's in her forties, and she's been divorced for six years from her college sweetheart, who is a renowned tech start-up guy.

She has a net worth of about 40 million dollars. Half of her money is socked away in a charitable remainder trust. The other half is invested in stocks, bonds, and real estate. Over the past five years, Deena has given more than five million dollars to various charities, mostly for the arts and medical research. She uses about a third of each year's income from the charitable remainder trust for charitable donations. She serves on the boards of several nonprofits, and writes checks to each of between $5,000 and $50,000 per year. She is also a member of two pooled funds to which she has committed tens of thousands over several years: Washington Women's Foundation and Social Venture Partners.

Deena is one of the bridge-builders between the new wealth and the old. She numbers among her friends and neighbors executives of Boeing and vice-presidents of Microsoft, boosters of the ballet and aficionados of fringe theater, inheritors with trust funds and investors with venture funds. In Deena's house, in Deena's company, these people come together to fund a variety of causes.

Deena is thoughtful, powerful, curious, and well-read, much more the philanthropist than the charitable check-writer. Her giving is organized and propelled by a clear set of values, but she has chosen not to create a foundation. As smart and knowledgeable as she is, the private foundation world — and its research and collegiality — is essentially unknown to her. Sometimes I wonder how her philanthropy might be transformed if she happened to engage in one far-ranging conversation with a foundation program officer.

At the Bauhaus — Going Incognito
Bauhaus Books & Coffee is the essence of Seattle style. It's on Pine Street on lower Capitol Hill, and it overlooks I-5, the Convention Center, and the retail core. It's real. Real old wood floors, painted brick walls, bare timber trusses. There's always a young barista there who is really a musician (or actor, or writer) and who is clever and funny and on friendly terms with Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam.

The Bauhaus is where I meet Josh Anonymous. He is in his early thirties and you could never tell by looking at him — in his faded Black Sabbath t-shirt and ten-year-old canvas boat shoes — that he is one of the wealthiest men in this town. He designs video games, and every single one of his games has been a huge seller. Josh says he has more money than God; he certainly has more than he's comfortable with.

Josh is a single guy. He doesn't date much because he's shy. And he's a Seattle native. His parents are college professors at the University of Washington. Josh grew up in a small bungalow in the Green Lake neighborhood. Like many of their Seattle neighbors, Josh's parents are politically liberal, environmentally conscious, and extremely frugal. In their world, which some would call eccentric, if not extreme, the idea of money has negative connotations. Every dime they earn goes to third-world charitable causes — to the point where they have no retirement nest egg and sometimes get behind on their mortgage.

Josh lives in two rooms in a run-down boarding house in the University District, where his neighbors know him only by his first name. The fact is, very few people know that Josh is worth more than $200 million — I don't think Josh's parents have any idea of their son's means. One person who does know is Josh's philanthropic advisor at the Seattle Foundation, where Josh has an enormous donor-advised fund.

Josh is fond of giving large donations anonymously, and he gives often and generously to arts-education programs in the region. He says it's because he was once a lonely artistic kid who would have either curled up and died or gone crazy if he hadn't been encouraged to draw, write, and play music. Until recently, Josh has given money away in an organic (some would say catch-as-catch-can) manner. He'd see a human interest story in the newspaper, overhear a conversation at the Bauhaus, or hear about a program from a gamer buddy, and a huge donation check would arrive in the mail at an unsuspecting arts organization the next week. Recently he's begun having regular meetings with his Seattle Foundation advisor, and he's becoming knowledgeable about arts-education programs — the large and small ones offered by both high-brow and community-based organizations.

What Josh doesn't yet know about are theories and models of arts education funding, and, being a voracious reader and web-savvy researcher, he probably can learn most of what he needs sitting alone in his rooms with his computer and high-speed connection. I'm trying to convince him to sign up for a GIA conference, but I don't know if he's ready. To my mind, there's no substitute for face-to-face conversation with experts.

At Café Argento — Mulling It All Over
Café Argento is the place I have coffee dates with myself. It's a small, friendly place around the corner from Richard Hugo House, a writer's center I co-founded on Capitol Hill in Seattle. At Café Argento I read about individualism and drink a latte that is its own work of art: thick, nutty, and hot. Here is where I find the line Walt Whitman wrote long ago: “I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals.”

As I age, I cleave to this notion. I think of Zack the inner-city teenager who attends Scribes, Hugo House's summer program for high school writers. Jeanine, Zack's mom, is exhausted from working two jobs and taking care of Zack's little sister Annie, who has intractable seizures and needs brain surgery. Inside Zack are the seeds of a poet and a saint — another Whitman, another Rilke. Words — assonance, dissonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia — swirl in his mind and propel him into the streets. Zoom in and you can identify — and identify with — the hunger in his mind. The need. For it is only in becoming aware of the particular that we understand the universal.

Life is no good without the individual — characters, personages you can see, feel, hear, and know. Good or bad, common or odd, the singleton, entity, hermit, maverick, wombat, mountebank, coot, hambone, or virtuoso makes the story good, makes life worth living. The artist is always an individual, the creative arises always and forever from an individual vision.

I'm convinced the same individual creativity can be brought to philanthropy, but doing philanthropy, like writing poetry, must be both studied and practiced to be done well.

I put Whitman away and pick up “Philanthropy's Forgotten Resource: Engaging the Individual Donor,” a report from New Visions Philanthropic Research and Development. Among the eye-openers in this statistics-filled report is this: in 1973 there were no social change foundations, federations, or women's funds providing education and support to donors, and in 2003 there were 243 such organizations. Donor education opportunities abound, these days. I can get educated about philanthropy at the Seattle Foundation, at Social Venture Partners, at Washington Women's Foundation, or at my local Fidelity or Schwab office, or on the internet.

It was on the internet that I found an interview with Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (3/2003). She says, “I believe that most societal change begins when someone wakes up in the morning and is inspired or angry or otherwise determined to alter something in their world....If they are able to mobilize other men and women, they begin to build a force for change.” I agree with that. Then she says, “We try to do that at Ford, working with nonprofits, business, and government.” True, Ms. Berresford, true. But conspicuously missing from this list, in my opinion, is the individual donor. If so much giving comes from individuals in this country (through the Fidelities and the Schwabs, for example), why are they excluded from the list of important partners? One reason, explained by Ms. Berresford and others (notably, John Kreidler in “Leverage Lost: The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era), is that charity (giving that responds directly and simply to a need, without the strategic component of philanthropy) is a good and necessary thing for society. Ms. Berresford and Mr. Kreidler are loathe to intervene in the individual funding landscape.

And I can understand that to some extent. But here's one problem with that scenario: There are too many individual donors who respond only to their friends, their relatives, their neighbors, their golf partners, their book club buddies, or their workout pals. So mostly what we end up with, as a society, is a lot of wealthy white people having access to a lot of other (more or less) wealthy white people. This has always been the case, to be sure. But with the landscape of philanthropy changing to include more non-institutional giving that is driven by individuals, there's not enough awareness of the need to bring social justice (Ms. Berresford's societal change) into decisions about giving.

To be fair, foundations are beginning to respond to this problem. For instance, the Ford Foundation, along with Kellogg and the Doll Family Foundation, funded “Giving Together, New Ventures in Philanthropy,” which does go a distance toward organizing and categorizing the ways individual donors can join together to learn and pursue common initiatives. (Wow, this New Ventures web site is really good — I wish I'd stumbled on it sooner when I was doing the research for this essay.)

To be sure, the big foundations — the ones with a wealth of experience making grants and a wealth of skill in the research arena — are beginning to take more notice of the individual donor. But there are still many important questions that need to be answered. I don't believe that anyone yet has a clear understanding of individual donors, who they are, what they want, what their specific interests are, and how their philanthropy can be supported efficiently.

And I know that many (indeed, probably, most) individual donors prefer to be left alone to make charitable gifts without outside interference, information, or visibility.

However, I think there are many individual donors who would take advantage of better opportunities to segue from charity to philanthropy, if they were aware of them. The main question I'd like answered right now is a simple one: How many individual donors in the United States would be interested in tapping into the research and collegiality available from mixing with the professional staffs at private foundations?

I can't help harkening back to the first time I ran across the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader. Alongside the thoughtful articles about arts funding, there was a description of the upcoming GIA conference, and I wanted to go. I tried to sign up, but I couldn't. Even though I gave, at that point, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year away, I had not established a foundation and therefore I was ineligible. Fortunately, I happened to know long-time Seattle arts activist Anne Focke (who is also GIA's executive director), and she fudged me in. That was a few years ago, and since then I've attended several conferences. More importantly, I've had dozens of informal conversations with foundation program officers through my association with GIA.

I don't have hard data to support my intuition — not yet, anyway — but I think we need more solidly researched initiatives that reach out to, organize, and engage individual donors.

And, in the meantime, I'd like to see more folks of all income levels, amateurs and professionals, learning from each other — more people having conversations at conferences or in coffee shops, giving each other a chance.

Sources of additional information


  1. Katharine Fulton and Andrew Blau, Looking Out for the Future, An Orientation for Twenty-First Century Philanthropists, (Cambridge: The Monitor Company Group, LLC, 2005), pp.15.
  2. Ibid, pp. 2
  3. Ibid, pp. 14

© 2005 Grantmakers in the Arts Reader
Vol 16, No. 3, Fall 2005