Man’s Search for Meaning and Philanthropy

I’ve been thinking for several weeks about this book and what it has to do with philanthropy in general and planned giving in particular.  Something just struck me so please humor me and read on.

Firstly, if you’ve never read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, you need to.  It is an unbelievable, true story with a far reaching message – one for those who work in philanthropy in particular need to ponder.  The story is of Frankl’s first hand experiences as an inmate in a concentration camp but Frankl is no ordinary victim. He was an up and coming Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist when he was swept into the Holocaust.  His life’s work having to do with a theory that people  have an inherent need to seek meaning in life.  And, he observed first hand – under the most horrific conditions – the impact of one’s being able to maintain meaning as a source of drive to remain alive (and the loss of meaning and almost assured death).

Frankl eventually becomes his own prime case study when he himself loses his research papers – the papers that gave him meaning and drive to live, and how he somehow finds meaning to live.  Eventually, he does survive and his theory changed the face of psychiatry and the world.

So what does Frankl’s story and work have to do with philanthropy or planned giving?

Think about this field we are in – philanthropy, fundraising. We represent various non-profit institutions and/or programs that receive significant funding through gifts from individuals.  Someone sees a request (perhaps in a letter or email or personal meeting), considers the worthiness of the cause, weighs how much to give this particular cause at this time, and writes a check or gives cash or something else of value. And, when it comes to planned giving, that same person is deciding to leave something after they are gone for this cause.

Why should anyone do this? What is the core reason for philanthropy?

I would like to suggest that Frankl’s theory is at the heart of the matter. Deep down in a person’s head, perhaps in the subconscious, there is something that drives a person to seek meaning outside of themselves and it often finds expression through charitable giving.  Giving to help others and/or to a cause greater than oneself. It gives meaning to our own lives.

So what does this mean to us “professionals” in the business of raising money?

Let me suggest that our job is to offer – on behalf of our respective institutions – meaning to the lives of our supporters.  In other words, we need to communicate clearly what our institutions are doing for our community and the rest of mankind.  We need to show our supporters that their dollars play an important role – that they are partners with us (the institutions) in addressing whatever needs we are focusing on.  That the funds are well spent and that the institution is making a difference.  And, that our current, short-term and long-term goals are in line with what we have promised to accomplish – on your (our supporters’) behalf.

In other words, let’s find a way to treat every donor – not just the top ones – like shareholders in the enterprise of correcting the world or whatever corner of the world we happen to be focussing on.

And, if we do that job well, besides receiving larger and more consistent gifts, more supporters will make the ultimate gift in their estate plans – establishing their own life legacies by connecting to institutions and causes  after they will no longer be here.

The gifts during life are small down payments on various levels of meaning our donors seek through their generosity.  And, the gifts upon death are often the final balloon payments to the most important, impactful conduits of meaning during our lives.














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