Innovation or Tradition? Different Approaches to Giving

My holiday dinners with extended family thankfully lack the stereotypical drama that seems to spawn so many think pieces and Facebook rants about surviving conversations with “unenlightened” relatives. We’re a mild-mannered, respectful bunch, even though we represent the full rainbow of the political spectrum.

This Christmas, though, things got tense over an unlikely subject – that classic song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

The generational spat pitted the young, urban millennial against the older generation who grew up with the song.

To modern ears, and, in the context of some disturbing 2017 headlines, the song describes a pushy guy failing to respect appropriate boundaries. To older ears, however, it is a song written and performed by a husband-and-wife team about a couple seeking to justify staying together in light of conservative mid-century social mores.

No one “won” the debate, and, frankly, it’s unwinnable. Neither perspective is wrong, per se – except to those with the opposite perspective.

We occasionally face the same argument in philanthropy. Perhaps you’ve seen it in the end-of-year appeals piling up in your mailbox and inbox. Older, established organizations tout a “proven track record of success” and the many years they’ve been “in the fight.”

On the other hand, newer organizations speak of their “innovative approach,” “ability to speak to new audiences,” and the promise of winning the day with a new strategy.

Here again, both sides are right. As we become more strategic donors, we should assess whether we want our charitable dollars to support safe, proven strategies or riskier, but potentially explosive new ones – and if there is a way to do both.

A Broad Landscape of Givers

We’ve spoken before about the spontaneous order that arises in the charitable world. That is to say, the fact that different donors will have their own philanthropic focus at the expense of other issue areas. This is successful because frequently the issue of concern to me, is of no particular interest to you, and vice versa. We each have our own “cup of tea” so to speak.

This spontaneous order enables donors to address a wide range of issues and social needs. It also gives rise to a diversity of strategies in tackling those problems.

Just as we argue over which causes deserve more attention, we can also fall into the trap of bickering over strategy.

It is important to clarify that there are weaker strategies. Occasionally, a bad plan is clear on its face. But established charities with a proven track record of accomplishment – be that a think tank that can influence lawmakers or a food bank that systemically does put food on the table – have clearly identified a path to success. They simply lack the resources – or interest – to do more.

We need donors who support those institutions just like we still need traditional taxis and conventional hotels.

But we need Uber and Airbnb too.

If donors only stick with tried-and-true strategies and tactics to solve problems, we miss out on innovations that could allow far more people to be helped. Plus, such innovations can actually expose ineffective strategies and force traditional charities to adapt accordingly. Generally, those new approaches change the way the game is played for the better.

We need donors with the tolerance to support a few duds so we can find those winners.

Swinging Both Ways

I’m optimistic that in the New Year, we will continue to see a unique trend – established conservative and libertarian public policy organizations that will continue to do the work they do best while also innovating as necessary.

While left-leaning policy and advocacy organizations continue to fall back on threadbare strategies of rage-inducement, organizations on the right have spent the past few years ramping up efforts to take a pro-liberty message to new audiences through new platforms and with new messages.

Take the Atlas Network. Atlas has decades of experience training leaders at liberty-minded think tanks nationally and internationally, and continues to expand these efforts steadily. Yet Atlas also recently launched a new effort to address and alleviate abject poverty.  It’s “Doing Development Differently” campaign relies on the international network it’s built, but challenges those same organizations to reach farther, communicate more boldly, and achieve measurable change.

We see more organizations relying on years of steady growth to jump into new areas. Frankly, it is imperative – if the ideas of liberty are to win the day, we have to communicate those ideas more broadly than we currently do.

Your Role

Donors “vote” for strategies, causes, and organizations with their charitable dollars. Our giving allows old and new organizations to prosper, experiment, help, and drive change.

Every donor is different. Just like generations view the value of a single song in different ways, so too can we appreciate different strategies for solving the social problems most important to us. Sometimes, a single organization can move the needle through both established and innovative ways.

We all have unique aims for what we wish to achieve. As you think through your charitable goals, be conscious of the strategies you believe work best. Use your giving to encourage organizations, be it to stay the course or to plunge into new arenas.


  • Peter Lipsett

    Peter Lipsett is vice president at DonorsTrust. He also leads DonorsTrust’s Novus Society, a network of donors under 40 committed to growing their philanthropic know-how. He has a dual degree in political science and theater from Davidson College and finally got a practical credential with an MBA from George Mason University.

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