I’m reading a bunch of research on student giving at the moment and had to stop and take issue with this repeating concept throughout the literature I’ve reviewed so far. I don’t like it when we use the term “investment” for philanthropy or giving to nonprofits. I’ve talked about words before in previous posts. It may be because of the way I was trained in my English education, but it really bugs me when words are chosen without regard to interpretations influenced by rhetorical trends, retail marketing, generational differences, regional differences, etc. Whatever the official definition, the word “investment” is understood to create a financial return. Or at least it’s hoped that it will. ROI duh. The argument that philanthropic giving has a return is fine – of course it does – but it isn’t a financial return. (I’ll talk about Social Entrepreneurship another time once I’m sure I understand it completely and can offend supporters from a position of knowledge in addition to, simply, feelings like it’s gross.) In other words, “investment” is a loaded term, and it’s incorrect and inappropriate for philanthropy.
The nonprofit sector and the world of philanthropy need donors to be taught that giving is done for the sake of assisting. Then stop talking. I believe it’s a huge mistake and unnecessary to talk about giving and volunteering as an investment. This tendency to follow an ask with a panicky qualification and proof of ROI tells me that the facilitator is untrained or uncomfortable with fundraising. It also creates a monster for fundraisers and organizations when we encounter a market that believes they need to get something for their gift.
There is so much research on the emotional and physical benefit of giving and volunteering. Plus, in regards to students, they pretty much have to do it either to curate compelling college applications or enjoy the social benefits of campus clubs. They don’t need a return on their investment. It feels good for them to do it. They are actually wanting more of these opportunities. Instead of making nonprofit giving and volunteerism seem like a business transaction, more effort should be made to ensure that student experience of philanthropy is meaningful and participation is thoughtfully stewarded.