3 min read

American Philanthropic’s latest resources guides donors through eight questions to help them reflect on and improve their giving habits.

Giving well is not easy. While philanthropy may look like it’s just “cutting checks,” donors have a lot to consider when making gifts.

Donors are often plagued by an overabundance of information that make the equation extremely complex—which is why resources like American Philanthropic’s “Little Book on Giving Well: 8 questions every donor should ask” are so valuable for thoughtful givers.


This booklet helps donors think through their philosophy and method of giving.

The first step is to develop a “why” for your giving. Donors should work to encapsulate their “philosophy of giving into a few sentences or paragraphs.” And this statement should be specific and should reflect the core components of your identity as a giver.

Here’s a bad example: “I give to help people flourish in the world as fulfilled human beings.” That may be true and good, but it is not specific enough to help you give well. You’ll be burdened by an inability to meaningfully decide between worthy recipients.

A good philosophy of giving will do more to articulate your priorities. For example, let’s say that you are a Catholic who cares about liberal arts education. Your statement, then, might look something like this: “I give to help people discover and be enriched by the Catholic liberal arts tradition.” Now we are talking.

Givers should also remember that, fundamentally, giving is “relational, not transactional.” This is the central theme of “Giving Well.”  This principle should inform all of your giving—not only to whom you give but how you give as well.


When trying to discern which organizations to give to, data can be helpful—but don’t let it consume your giving strategy.

Donors should start with human connection when finding organizations to give to. In other words, talk to people. More to the point, talk to people “who share your values and whose opinions you trust.” In theory, you can trust the numbers; but, in practice, no one trusts (or should trust!) a statistic as much as they trust a person that they have a relationship with.

In fact, as our Donor Crossroads Survey found, major donors rank “Friends, Family, & Associates” as the number one resource they consult to help direct their charitable giving. So, get to know nonprofits and their leadership, and talk to people you trust and that share your values.


The relational nature of giving should also make donors think about where they give their money. Many givers like the idea of having a “big impact.” They want to end world hunger or build churches in Africa. These goals may be laudable but, nonetheless, “we must note the monumental arrogance of the person (or foundation) who, from altitudes of 30,000 feet, claims to know what will really help societies on the other side of the globe.”

We often talk about the knowledge problem in relation to bureaucrats in D.C., but we must remember it in giving, too.  “You know your own backyard—and the problems it faces—far better than you know a sub-Saharan village.” In short, focus your giving on the organizations and communities that you have direct contact with (perhaps that you have close physical proximity to!) and help build up your community well rather than throwing money at a faraway problem you do not fully understand.


Finally, a word on how you give. Among its eight questions, “The Little Book on Giving Well” addresses this very important one: “Should I give general-operations donations or project-specific donations?”

This boils down to “whether or not you trust the organization enough to cede control of how your gift is spent.” This, of course, ties back to the relational nature of giving. A donor might ask herself, “does it really make sense to give money to an organization I don’t trust?” Well, not really. The most common example of this is giving to your beloved alma mater. You may love your alma mater, but can you trust it given the current trends in higher education? If not, you probably shouldn’t give a general-operations donation to your alma mater. But there may well be other organizations that you know and trust and that are advancing similar issues that you care about.

Perhaps you have known the president a long time or you were involved in the organization’s programs yourself. You may know some of the staff, keep a close eye on their work, and find their programs to be well executed, consistent, and doing exactly what they intend to. If that is the case, our advice is “write the check, and get out of the way in terms of how exactly it’s spent.”

This short booklet will be an invaluable tool for donors. If you would like to get access to “The Little Book on Giving Well," you can find it here. Giving isn’t easy but these eight simple questions can assist you in your endeavor to give well.

Do you have any stories about giving well (or poorly!) or working with great donors? Any additional tips on giving well? Share them in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *