Are there elephants in your portfolio?

Foolishly, I did not expect the onslaught.  It began in earnest in July, when I innocently struck up a chatty conversation with the owner of the Cape Cod hotel where my family was staying.  Upon learning that I was a philanthropic advisor, he exclaimed, “You have to talk with my friend who is running a non-profit!”  Carefully tucking my business card into his wallet, he pronounced, “You’ll love her, and she’s doing such great work.”  In my sand-and-sun dazed state, I amiably agreed.  Within the hour, there was a voicemail on my phone from the eager Executive Director, whom I realized was based in California.  We played phone tag for weeks after, and I grew accustomed to having “Los Angeles” appear on my list of voicemail messages.

When we finally spoke, it was the Monday after Irene had devastated so many communities in our state.  Like so many others that day, I was still struggling to comprehend the enormity of the disaster – the homeless families, the communities that had been swamped or cut off, the farm fields buried in silt – when “Los Angeles” popped up on my phone again.  After exchanging pleasantries, the sunny Executive Director launched into a 30-minute monologue describing her organization, which, among other projects, owned an African elephant sanctuary championed by movie stars.

I like elephants as much as the next person.  I support the value of land conservation for wildlife, and I can even stretch to acknowledge the value of celebrity endorsements to certain audiences.  However, as I held the phone in central Vermont, stunned and worried about the devastation wrought by Irene, it was a surreal conversation, and I could only think, “Elephants?  Really?  And, am I supposed to know who Kelly Preston is?”

After years leading foundations, and therefore both welcoming and expecting the engagement with the non-profit sector, I assumed that once I had stepped down from that role, I would no longer be on the must-call list for non-profits.  In hindsight, of course I should have realized that by starting a philanthropic advising firm, the calls would only increase.  Just while writing this piece, I received an email message from a passionate community leader in southern Vermont, hoping I might be able to direct help to a non-profit, saying, “they lost all of their public funding in the recent federal cuts and are now out and about begging organizations to purchase memberships for their services.  We, of course, have also lost all kinds of funding, and are not in any position to be of any help.  It was all very sad.”

No matter the reason – from statewide disasters like Irene to the Lamoille County organization whose computers were fried by lightning, to ongoing federal and state budget cuts, or the increased demand for human services in the wake of both the recession and Irene – almost every organization is on a spectrum that ranges from pinched for cash to full financial crisis.  And, I am certainly not alone in fielding an inordinate number of requests for help: so many philanthropists, foundations, and corporations face the challenge of overwhelming demand for limited charitable funds.

So, how to respond?  How does one allocate limited resources in situations of limitless need?  There has been more and more writing on how to handle these pressures, from the U.K.‘s Institute for Philanthropy report “Giving in the Recession” to the Vermont Community Foundation’s recent “Things to keep in mind when donating to disaster recovery efforts”.  To these recommendations, I offer just one addition: stick to your values and your mission.

During a time of crisis, relying on clearly articulated values and a mission will help keep your philanthropic portfolio on the right course.  And, if you don’t have written values and a mission statement, there’s no time like the present to clear your desk or kitchen table and start experimenting with writing about what drives you.  It doesn’t matter whether you are managing the charitable assets of a Fortune 500 company or the annual giving for your nuclear family, these declarations will act as a beacon in a nor’easter.  They are the first step towards developing a strategic plan for your giving, acting as a filter that help you say “no” when you need to.  Most importantly, they are the connection between the checks you write and the reason you engage in the act of giving away money to begin with . . . articulating your values and mission helps you to put the joy back in giving.

So, if you never were involved with affordable housing before, think carefully about whether Irene is the perfect opportunity to broaden your philanthropic horizons, or a diversion from your traditional focus on the arts.  Perhaps your disaster-related funding niche is supporting arts organizations impacted by flooding.  If affordable housing has been a priority for you, perhaps now is the time to help those groups supporting flood victims in the face of budget cuts, such as home sharing organizations, in increasing community support by making a challenge grant.  And, if African wildlife hasn’t been part of your mission statement before now, resist the urge to respond – even if they too have been negatively impacted by the recession.  Stick to your values and mission to make your giving meaningful – or at year’s end you’ll have a philanthropic portfolio full of white elephants.