Putting Relationships Back Into Philanthropy

Ben Shelton ’12 is recalling philanthropic organizations and donors to a relationship-based approach to giving.

Lauren Bobbitt


There are over 86,000 charitable foundations incorporated in the United States, and at least 70% of giving nationwide comes from individuals. Between donors, foundations, and other organizations, there is quite a bit of money to go around--over $373 billion given in 2015 alone (a record high). But when Ben Shelton (John Jay Fellow, Spring ’12) reflects on his work in the world of philanthropy and charitable giving, he does not talk about numbers. He talks about people.
Despite the field’s frequent emphasis on dollar amounts and measurable impact, Ben affirms the fundamental ontology of philanthropy as a sphere of civil society: to foster relationships that build community and support human flourishing. Indeed, until the relatively recent past, “philanthropy” did not really exist. Instead, it was called charity – a Christian virtue that was a way of striving toward holiness and caring for the people in one’s community. Ben believes recovering this spirit is the animating force and true nature of philanthropy. Like the famous line in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, “It all turns on affection,” for Ben, when it comes to philanthropic giving and reporting, “It all turns on relationships.”
Ben currently serves as the director of the mail services group for American Philanthropic, a consulting firm that offers strategic planning, development, and communications services for philanthropies and nonprofit organizations. He works primarily with nonprofits in their fundraising and donor relations efforts. As an undergraduate at Hillsdale College, in his subsequent work in public policy, and during his time at the John Jay Institute, Ben did not necessarily have his eye on a career in philanthropy. But he did have a desire to seek the welfare of the city and a yearning for richer life in community.
“I came to the Institute looking for rest, and to reorient the way I thought I should engage with community and peers working towards a common vision.”

Ben with two John Jay Institute colleagues at American Philanthropic: Carter Skeel and Rachel Short.

Ben with two John Jay Institute colleagues at American Philanthropic: Carter Skeel and Rachel Short.

Eager to be renewed in hope for that common vision, Ben found that the habits formed during the fellows program enabled him to live obediently and faithfully toward that end. As he began transitioning into philanthropic work, his appreciation for the powerful impact of life together in community carried over.
In Ben’s estimation, if there is a pervasive weakness of most fundraising and philanthropy efforts today, it is this: “Not enough nonprofits realize this is really about human relationships.”
Well acquainted with both the great needs and potential problems addressed in philanthropic work, Ben sees keenly the mismatch that often emerges between the mission and methodology of many charitable and non-profit organizations.
“A lot of philanthropy is soul-sucking. So much of the field is dominated by a desire to see impact measured in the way you would when conquering a disease or developing a new technology. But for most nonprofits, that methodology doesn’t ever address the deeper human aspects of their work, and in many cases it may even inhibit what those nonprofits might accomplish.”
An overemphasis on data-driven results reporting and the eagerness to present results with scientific rigor often fails to satisfy the real reasons why people give and remain loyal to an organization. Ben sees many nonprofits confused about these methods and struggling to know how to best direct their energies. By realigning the donors’ desires with the organization’s needs, Ben aims to return integrity and effectiveness to fundraising and donor relations.

“Turns out most donors don’t care as much about the substance of the issue. They care about the relationship they have with you and about what they love in common with you. Relationships with donors are about inviting them to make their principles and the things they love into something concrete.”

In the end this fundamental failure to give donors what they most desire can translate to ineffective fundraising and donor retention – two problems many nonprofits and ministries are all too familiar with. So what does it look like, then, to invite donors further into what they love and to make a lasting impact?
Ben’s answer can, again, be summed up in one word: relationships.  As a director of mail services, Ben has a healthy appreciation for the role of data and measurable results in gauging growth or success. But he also knows that real impact most often cannot be collapsed into digits, and that time and money are finite resources. Thus, energies must be directed to where they can have the greatest impact and to how that impact can be most effectively conveyed.
“The impact is the strength of the community,” he says. “That is what a nonprofit needs to give their donors a sense of. If you can communicate to donors that their gift is helping foster a community, and their generosity is part of that, that is powerful.”
Toward this end, face-to-face interactions between donors and the community impacted are ideal. As an example Ben cites his alma mater, Hillsdale College. Hillsdale regularly hosts lectures and workshops bringing together students and donors in a shared educational setting. When such direct relational experiences are not possible, as is most often the case, organizations should lean heavily on narrative to convey impact.
“The story is what creates the community,” Ben explains.

Stories of real people and real lives affected by an organization’s work can convey a sense of relationship and human connection across distance. They can also speak to the true reasons most people give while offering the most satisfying way to grasp the impact of those gifts.
Cultivating a sustained relationship with an individual donor is key for organizations that fundraise. What helps determine the strength of that relationship? Not surprisingly, it is many of the same practices that foster any healthy human relationship. Time. Conversation and storytelling. Emotional investment. True real relationships require real people, and Ben emphasizes that not enough nonprofits designate sufficient staff power to consistent relationship building with donors. They also don’t always facilitate the kind of emotional connection that will deliver the results they desire. Appealing to potential donors’ sense of guilt or fear might work once or twice, at best, but it will not secure the kind of enduring devotion that is fed by compassion, human connection, and hope. Rather than play to an issue-based anxiety or vague desire to “save the world,” tell them a story.
While it is not always easy nor common, this kind of approach to philanthropic giving is refreshingly simple and human. By focusing on the heart of philanthropy’s essence – loving (philo) mankind (anthropos) – one senses a satisfying unity between intention, means, and impact. This solid satisfaction is evident when Ben talks with conviction and hope about a relationship-based approach to giving. In this paradigm is also, perhaps, an antidote to the burnout and cynicism that can be all too common and all too tempting in philanthropic work. But in order for this paradigm to be effective, Ben emphasizes the need for trust in the ultimate impact of philanthropy in the economy of God’s kingdom, where our work means more than what we can immediately measure or see.


Author: Lauren Bobbitt is a 2009 John Jay Institute fellow who studied English literature and now spends her days working in communications at an organic dairy farm and creamery in her Hoosier home.