“Hero” is an admirable quality that tends to be tossed around all too loosely. I enjoy watching sports as much as anyone, but I think it is a stretch to describe professional athletes as sports heroes. “Hero” is a word that should be restricted to those who are genuinely courageous in taking significant risks to benefit others without the rewards of money and fame. First responders and essential workers who gave us a measure of normalcy during the pandemic come immediately to mind. And so do the unsung heroes who power the nonprofit sector.
Philanthropy is Fueled by Daily Acts of Heroism
As a fundraising trainer and consultant who’s had the privilege of working with hundreds of nonprofit leaders and their supporters, I can strongly make the case that the philanthropic sector is full of heroes. Nonprofit professionals, donors and volunteers put themselves on the front lines of service to others with their gifts of time, talent and treasure. Their actions touch, improve and save lives and empower the noble missions of our nation’s 1.5 million non-profit organizations.
10 Examples of Heroes in Action
Several perspectives illustrate that philanthropy is full of heroes who demonstrate courage each and every day to improve the world. Let’s consider ten of them.
1. I’ll start with an example that’s very close to my heart: fundraisers. Professional and volunteer nonprofit leaders who, without fear, hesitation or anxiety, ask for gifts of time and money to fuel the good works of the nonprofit sector. Too many times, I’ve seen business and community leaders who are fearless in virtually everything else they face, but are terrified to ask someone for a gift to their favorite nonprofits. They often say they fear rejection. There are no sure bets in fundraising, other than the only bad ask is the ask never made. Successful fundraisers recognize that they are not asking for themselves, but for grander purposes such as helping others who are struggling.
2. Donors also show courage in making their gifts of time and money. The stark reality is that it is extremely difficult to be a donor who is forced to choose not among the good and the bad, but among the good and the good. Even the wealthiest of donors have finite resources and cannot respond to all the requests received. Donors must conduct research, commit time to evaluate the impact of nonprofits, and ask timely questions about the return on their philanthropic investment.
3. Fundraisers must be courageous and adhere to the highest code of ethics. If they don’t, they will lose the trust of donor prospects and, along with it, their integrity. This may require the courage of both standing up to supervisors who make unethical demands and to donors who ask for favors that cross the fairness line in exchange for their gifts.
4. Nonprofit leaders need the courage to prioritize their finite resources and demonstrate fortitude with decision-making in matters of finance allocation, treasured staff support and volunteer time. These are difficult questions to wrestle with daily, but are done through the lens of which actions will best serve their missions and stakeholders.
5. Many times nonprofit leaders need the courage to step up and take risks to address new and formidable challenges. The pandemic is an all too recent and vivid reminder of organizations being pushed to the limit of how to deliver much-needed services to more beneficiaries and in new and different ways. Accepting the challenge of capital campaigns and other major gift initiatives also requires climbing out on limbs and accepting risks.
6. Funders demonstrated much-needed courage during the height of the pandemic and not only awarded more funding, but also gave recipient organizations much more flexibility in how to use their funds. Let’s hope that we will see more of this trust-based philanthropy providing flexibility on when and where it’s needed most, following the awesome leadership example of MacKenzie Scott.
7. America’s volunteers — an estimated 77.9 million adults (or 30% of the population) — give 5.8 billion hours to nonprofits and good causes. A huge number of nonprofits could not provide the services that they do without the incredible display of the volunteer spirit. In fact, the gift of time is more precious than money because, unlike money, it can never be replaced.
Build Meaningful Relationships with Your Volunteers
8. We have strong expectations for future heroes who embrace philanthropic living. Millennials and Gen-Zs are reshaping philanthropy and ushering in a new era of giving. A report by payment app Zelle found that nearly 75% of Millennials provided financial support to family, friends or nonprofits since the pandemic began — the highest rate among any generation polled. Younger generations of philanthropists are mobilizing rapidly to support causes they believe in, sharing these causes on social media and crowdfunding donations.
9. Let’s not leave the beneficiaries of philanthropy out of the loop. They are the ones at most risk. They are to receive credit for trusting in the nonprofit sector to provide much-needed help and partnering with nonprofits to use resources accordingly.
10. The final article of courage is an unflinching faith that the varied partners in philanthropy believe in one another. The infusion of a mind-numbing $485 billion in private gift money would not be possible without robust collaboration, cooperation and trust. Millions of people from all different socio-economic backgrounds come together to make a difference in every dimension of the quality of life.
If philanthropy is full of heroes, then indeed it is full of unsung heroes. The vast majority of board members, staff, volunteers and donors have names that may be unfamiliar to you. However, they share a deep, abiding passion for the missions of their respective organizations. Smiles of gratitude and personal impact stories fuel their incredible work ethic and devotion. America is truly blessed to be endowed with a philanthropic sector full of heroes.