Why Melanie Gives: Thinking Like a Giver

Is filling the needs in our communities enough? How can we increase or charitable impact? In this month’s donor feature, Melanie Hildreth a Novus Society member shares with us how her thinking around charitable giving has shifted by using a donor-advised fund. You can read last month’s feature here

I joined the Novus Society because they asked me. I have long known and respected DonorsTrust, and I like to say yes to friends, so when my husband, Jeff, and I got the invitation to join, starting a fund was an easy decision.

I thought having a donor advised fund would be a nice way to streamline giving and get a better handle on the various checks going out the door. But I’ve spent my whole career in the world of philanthropy. I was pretty sure there was nothing the experience would teach me, and I certainly didn’t expect to change my giving. I was just taking an opportunity to be part of a group I liked.

I was wrong.

Thinking Like a Giver

It turns out that being a giver–and thinking of yourself as a giver, a philanthropist–is a completely different kind of calculation than being part of an organization that receives charitable dollars. And for us small donors who have never really thought about it before, because we never realized we had to think about it before, focusing on your giving changes the way you look at the organizations you support.

When I started thinking holistically about all the donations my family was making, I realized that in my own giving, I was operating under a completely different set of principles than I applied professionally.

Nine to five each day, my primary focus is ensuring that donations are put to good strategic use. But when it came time for Jeff and me to write checks, our decisions were almost completely driven by need–the needs we saw in the world, and the needs of the organizations we were supporting. Rarely, if ever, did I look at an organization’s strategy and plans, or at how it was doing in executing them. Starting a donor advised fund helped me to do that. And once I did, I had to reckon with what I saw.

The Need is Not the Call

When I was young, I used to worry that God would call me to be a missionary to a remote African tribe. As someone who found camping in the state park near my house to be well outside my comfort zone, this was about the worst thing I could imagine as a job. But if there was a need for someone to do the work, I didn’t want to say no. This bothered me off and on until I got one of the most profound pieces of advice I’ve received in my life: The need is not the call.

The world is full of things that need to be done. My job isn’t to find the greatest need, it’s to do the greatest good I can with my abilities and my resources. Philanthropy isn’t just an expression of what we want the world to look like–it’s supposed to be about helping us get there. Despite everything I knew about how good philanthropy works, in my personal giving I was falling down on the second part of that calculation.

Making Changes

As of this writing, Jeff and I are doing a wholesale review of our priorities and the best groups out there advancing them. But this is a process that takes some time, and given our work schedules and young family it’s hard to find that time. While we work on it, our donor advised fund is serving another useful purpose.

We value giving and have found that we are able to contribute much more when we make monthly or even weekly donations. We didn’t want to break that habit or “lose” the money we would have given directly to organizations we supported. Our fund at DonorsTrust is the perfect place to house those regular contributions while we make our decisions and move forward in the best possible position to make a difference with our giving.


Why Melanie Gives: Thinking Like a GiverMelanie Hildreth is Vice President for External Relations at the Institute for Justice, where she’s worked for nearly 14 years. She and her husband, Jeff, live in northern Virginia with their three children.


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