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Donor Fatigue

In meeting with a donor recently, I was reminded of an important and under-attended to concept: donor fatigue. This particular donor was obviously tired of “the ask.”

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As a wealthy person who has the means to help with a wide variety of issues, and to make a significant contribution when helping, most of this person’s interactions entail an ask for (big) money. Wealthy people often get a bad rap today, and albeit some degree of public pressure may be a good reminder to share wealth abundance.

But I also think wealthy people, like all people, need empathy as well. One problem it seems with average, everyday people having empathy for people who are wealthy is the limited extent to which average people can relate to wealthy people. In that case, what people may really need is to have is sympathy, rather than empathy.

My husband is an engineer, and he often asks me to (re)explain the difference between empathy and sympathy. I am no expert in this area, and there are conflicting views out there on the distinction. For example, consider the two images below, both of which appear toward the top of a Google image search for empathy versus sympathy.

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The first image highlights the distinction between cognition and emotion, explaining empathy to be understanding another by feeling (left), versus sympathy as understanding another by knowing (right). Similarly, the next image shows a sympathetic response (left) as responding verbally to someone crying by acknowledging their pain, whereas the empathic response (right) is welling up with tears to share the pain. For me though, the information in the chart below is helpful.

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In particular, I find the third row to be the best at clarifying the distinction: empathy involves having had a similar experience in the past, whereas when one does not have a similar experience from which to draw, sympathy is the result. This lack of a shared experience can require greater cognitive response and may explain the "I know how you feel" kind of reaction. This is my working definition of these concepts.

(P.S. I have empathy for the creator of the above chart, and the typo he or she has in the word expericne. That almost made me not share this chart, but then I thought about my own experiences with typos and decided it would be too ironic to remove it.)

With those explanations in mind, I return to wealthy donor fatigue. Perhaps everyday people tend to think of themselves as not having similar experiences to people who are wealthy, and may instead have a reaction, such as "gee, wouldn't it be nice to have so much money that I felt tired of being asked for it." But that kind of reaction would fail to draw upon the likelihood of some shared experiences here. While most of us do not know what it is like to be asked to make huge donations to fund a building or an entire program, we do know what it is like to be weary or under appreciated.

I once was taken to lunch by a wealthy philanthropist, who complained to me that people were always paying her bill for her. She said, "here I have millions of dollars, and no one will let me buy their lunch!" Perplexed as to why this bothered her so much, I asked her to explain. She said, "Well, when they buy my lunch, I know they want something from me. Whether they ask me now, or ask me later, they are taking me to lunch to ask me for something. If anyone would ever just let me pay, I would know they just wanted to go to lunch to be in my company." Needless to say, I let her pay:-)

Surely we can all understand that feeling, even if we draw upon our remembrance of similar feelings within in very different circumstances. In the process, I think we need to reflect on ways to share the load. If everyday people leave philanthropy for the wealthy, then what happens when big donors get tired of contributing? This holiday season, let's reflect on the ways we are all philanthropists and figure out how to make contributions in our own way. Together, we can spread energy instead of fatigue.

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