The Giving Tree that Trusted Relationships Make Possible

By Rachel Keller Brown, Principal

The masterpiece by Shel Silverstein entitled “The Giving Tree” reminds us of some important lessons in non-profit leadership, philanthropy, and fundraising in general.

First and foremost, all of us enter our charities, campaigns, and causes thanks to somebody living prior to our existence.  Someone, something, or some act or deed that, because it was already there, made it possible, likely, or probable that your work would follow.


Perhaps a teacher or mentor moved you to consider your career field.  Maybe an experience afforded to you from a parent or donor gave birth to your campaign.  Whatever the drive, it was your personal giving tree that you trusted in a time of uncertainty.  We all must remember those who gave us the chance to find return over our risks.

As your opportunities and challenges grew with life, your needs from those around you evolved as well.  Volunteers on your board are no different.  They too, will change their forecasts of what is possible, as the economy churns, as their personal lives balance, and as your cause matures.

Too often, we act more like the little boy making new demands, and less like the giving tree looking creatively for how to serve.  In times of economic contraction, now is the time to become more flexible with partnerships, not fearful of changes that could spell crisis.

Thinking that donations to your efforts must act as they have done before may be the greatest myth facing your organization.  Have you considered how to get more bang towards your mission using creative technologies to deliver your message?  How seriously have you explored changing the venue, tempo, and board outreach to meet your campaign’s next year goals?  Furthermore, have you considered how your “Giving Tree” donors are adapting in their own life cycle, to manage their goals?

Your most dedicated donors ultimately have limits to what they can provide.  Perhaps that is one reason why many donors are choosing to go anonymous with their gifts.  A recent Chronicle of Philanthropy news update by Ben Gose cites that, “During the past 10 months – a period that included a steep plunge in the stock market – the proportion of gifts worth $1 million or more that have been made anonymously far exceeds historic patterns…”

With less than one third of nonprofit groups having built their own in-house social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace) to bring online supporters together to discuss a specific cause or issue, is there any wonder for why revenues there remain small?  Fundraisers of the future must find new ways to connect their giving trees much earlier in life.

A missing element throughout social network giving is not efficiency, but personal trust.  People give support to people that they know well.  The challenge of our day, therefore, may be maintaining trust through transparency, accountability, and frequent contact.  Technology can help us achieve that, but not solely without the human condition of mutually-earned trust.

How would the giving tree story have ended if the boy never returned, or if the tree’s location was lost?  Despite our struggles, all of us must forge ahead together, hopefully with the strong shoulders from high trust relationships carrying us with everyday contact.  Don’t give up on your giving trees, and always try to sow more seeds for the next generation.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.  Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” –  Helen Keller