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So why DO I give? Confessions of a donor
Tom Ahern

April, 2013

Why do I give to charity?


Well, I examined that impulse one night recently, as I burned brush during the heart of a blizzard. Microfleece was involved. Snow-chilled beer was involved.1


Why do I give? At the most personal level.


I give because of.... 

  • Guilt. Feelings of guilt about what? you will naturally want to know. See the footnote below. The rest? I have no intention of revealing those pivotal moments, when my former behavior clashed with my now core values. That's between my priest and me, on my death bed. But I will say: those personal failures led me directly to certain charities. I don't think I'm alone in that behavior. What is reckless youth about? Repentant adulthood. 
  • Duty. Like most donors (surveys reveal), I feel I should give back for the advantages that came my way in life ... even when I spurned them on first encounter. Throughout my life, compassionate, kindly, caring people have helped me, sometimes in the face of my indifference and ingratitude. I want to pay it forward, per the saying.
  • Wonder. Know thyself, ancient Greeks advised. Know thy brain is the update. We live in a Golden Age, from a neuroscience standpoint. Labs routinely reveal truths about the brain we didn't suspect 20 years ago. Example? When our brains encounter new information, a burst of dopamine results. Dopamine makes you feel good. Dopamine is an addictive drug. But you can't buy it on the street. It is a brain-generated neurotransmitter vital to the human "internal reward system." Want to make me feel good? Tell me something I didn't know. I'll thank you ... maybe with a gift! 
  • Participation in a fight. Why did so many small donors give to the 2008 Barack Obama campaign for the White House? According to Prof. Dean Karlan at Yale, those tens of millions of modest donors gave primarily because they wanted to get into a fight that they felt was worthy and winnable and relevant to them. Almost every charity I know can make the "fight" metaphor work. "With your help, we're in the fight to ..." Fill in the blank.
  • Values. You believe in certain things. I believe in certain things. My dad, for example, did not go to college. He worked in a factory all his life. I, on the other hand, did go to college. I've published books. I have a second home in France. Therefore, I deeply believe in the transformational power of higher education ... because I've personally experienced it. I also believe in fairness. I also believe in the healing power of nature and humility. I also believe our nation needs to wind down its farfetched and exorbitant War on Drugs and replace it with something useful; we've turned a failed experiment into a major industry and tossed a higher percentage of our citizens into jail than any other "civilized" country on earth, the definition of stupid. I also believe in my local volunteer fire department; I've seen their work up close and personal, more than once. I also believe that the poor and the powerless need any help I can easily afford to give. I also believe in progress. I also believe in the rule of law. I also believe in democracy as the political system of choice, despite its messiness. I do not believe in perfection. I am not an idealist. I fail. We all fail. And I hope I can help someone else who's failed, who wants to try again. I believe a lot in helping. In part, that's evolution; we are a social species. In part, it's because I am (finally mature enough to be) intensely grateful for all that I've been given. I also believe in children and their potential. This doesn't make me special. This makes me HUMAN. We all believe in children (except psychopaths). It's in our brain's wiring. Human biology dictates that when youngsters need help, we act. That's why charities helping homeless youngsters will likely find it easier to raise money than charities helping homeless adults.  
  • Appreciation for how I've been treated by my charities. Can we be frank? I will continue to give to those charities who like me and show it conspicuously. When I make an online gift and some computer spits me an automatic gift acknowledgment and a perfunctory thanks, am I emotionally gratified? Well, the question answers itself. 

1. Burning brush in the country, where I live, is a last-ditch "Lyme-disease-bearing tick prevention so maybe I won't get a fatal neurological disease" program. You have to burn in blizzards because it's safer. There is no vaccine for Lyme disease. And Lyme disease is every-other-neighbor common where I live. Untreated, it is a seriously ugly affliction, related I'm told to syphilis. I do though freely confess my sin against the common climate we all share. Hence my GUILTY gift to some environmental charity soon for the extra soot I created locally.




Super-guru, Seth Godin, speaking at MIT, asked Marc Pitman, The Fundraising Coach, to give a 140-second "Icarus Presentation." 


What Marc said grabbed me by my soul and wrung out tears of pleasure. You can view his talk online. Or you can read the transcript here:


How many of you have ever asked someone to give money to a nonprofit? [More than half raised their hands] 


How many of you enjoyed it? [Some laughter; some groans]

In the next few seconds, I want to help you reframe that. Please take out a piece of paper and write down the name of a nonprofit that you wish had more resources to fund its mission. [Paused]

When I started fundraising in the mid 1990s, I was told I was a professional beggar. Or a "chugger"-a charity mugger, someone who bonked people on the head and tried to grab their wallet.

But I've come to see fundraising as more than that. You see, most people are stuck working 40, 60, 80, or 120 hours a week doing things they don't love. Doing things totally unrelated to their values. As fundraisers, we get to re-introduce them to what makes them human. We are like archaeologists. We get to dig down and uncover a person's core values. We help them brush off the dirt and sweep away the cobwebs.

It's wonderful to see people reconnect with their core values! But we do even more. We get to connect them with something wired even deeper into us as human beings. We get to reconnect them with generosity. We show them areas where their core values line up with our nonprofit's values. And we ask them to invest in them.

When donors realize they can invest in their core values through our nonprofit, their eyes light up! All of a sudden their 40, 60, or 80 hours of work take on a whole new meaning.

After you've experienced this a few times it becomes addicting! That's when we realize we really can ask without fear! 


Visit for more interesting information of fundraising and donors.


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