The joy of giving — and what it means to fundraisers: An interview with author and philanthropy advisor Jenny Santi

Jenny Santi is a philanthropy advisor to some of the world’s most generous givers, celebrity activists, and leading financial institutions in Europe and Asia, helping them channel their wealth, power and search for meaning toward social good. She also is the author of the acclaimed book, “The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving.”

We’re looking forward to meeting Jenny at IFC Asia (26-28 June in Bangkok), where she will present a keynote session titled, “What Giving Does for the Giver.”

In the meantime, we chatted with her about her book, her research, her stories, and her thoughts about the changing philanthropic landscape in the Asia Pacific region.

The Resource Alliance: The title of your book is “The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving.” How have you seen specific change happen in the life of givers?

Jenny Santi: Giving can lead us to find our purpose and discover our calling – not just a career. It helps us find strength through some of the greatest challenges in life, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a personal crisis, or a collective tragedy. Giving can lead to new friendships, deeper connections, stronger family ties, and to love. It gives us a sense of significance beyond material success.

RA: How can a fundraiser (or team) at a nonprofit organisation harness what you’ve learned to better engage with supporters? 

 JS: It runs so contrary to this picture of happy giving that I’ve been talking about so far, yet donor fatigue is a very real phenomenon. Giving can also lead us to feel depleted, taken advantage of, and burnt out – especially these days when there isn’t a day that goes by that my mail doesn’t include a solicitation from some charitable organization looking for help. The last chapter of the book discusses how each of us can give in a way that makes us happy and fulfilled, not burnt out and resentful.

One of the most important things I discovered is that donor fatigue doesn’t happen because donors are broke. It is far more likely that they have become fatigued because they are skeptical of whether most of the money they’re giving away will ever reach the needy. Practically none of us can say that the feeling of donor fatigue is because we’re already giving away too much money to too many charities. Nearly all of us can give just a little more. The biggest reason for donor fatigue is that a person’s generosity is not well matched to his or her passion. Our impulse to give stems from the heart. Our passion should be the starting point for our giving. Fundraisers should learn what their supporters and prospects are deeply passionate about. What moves them? What are their motivations for giving?

RA: Are there any misconceptions around giving (and asking) that you feel might hinder organisations in their funding efforts?

 JS: Your supporters and prospects want to be asked about what they are passionate about. And they also want to hear your story – what moved you to do what you do? What is your story? Also, Think win-win. Particularly for those with fundraising responsibilities, don’t think of yourself as constantly in a state of need, but know what you have got to offer.

RA: Can you share any specific insights about giving and philanthropy in the Asia Pacific region? 

JS: Some trends I’ve seen in the APAC region:

Greater exchange of ideas among philanthropists. Collaboration among philanthropists is taking place – not quite yet on the ground, but at least in the ideological sense. Over the last few years there have been a great number of conferences, meetings and networking events convening philanthropists in Asia. There is a greater willingness among them to meet with other families and individuals in the social sector, such as academics, nonprofit leaders, social entrepreneurs, and other wealthy families and individuals. Most of these gatherings are organized by private banks, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations, but there is evidence of philanthropists self-organizing as well, particularly among the younger generation.

Philanthropy becoming more public. Accompanying the greater exchange of ideas is the trend toward more public giving. Many major philanthropists in Asia still prefer to maintain the confidentiality of their activities, mainly due to strong cultural and religious dispositions, as well as their concerns regarding unwarranted governmental or media scrutiny. However, a number of philanthropists realized that they themselves got started on their giving journey after having heard or read about another individual’s or family’s philanthropic acts. They then realized that being more public about their giving increases the chances that other people will be compelled to do the same. For instance, a Singaporean real estate tycoon with whom I have worked once told me that the reason he decided to formalize and be public about his giving was because he was inspired by Bill Gates – and that had Gates been private about his giving, wealthy Singaporeans would not have learned from his example.

Combining business approaches with traditional philanthropy. A number of Asian families are combining traditional philanthropy with investments in for-profit businesses that can directly benefit the lower income segments in Asia. These include investments in basic services and infrastructure that governments have not been able to provide, such as socialized housing, the water sector, education, health care and microfinance. For example, the Ayala Corporation, one of the oldest and largest conglomerates in the Philippines, combines philanthropy and business to address bottom-of-the-pyramid problems by investing in microfinance, health care and education. These have been game changers for people with little or no access to services. Another example is Cipla, a socially conscious, multibillion dollar generic pharmaceuticals company led by Yusuf Hamied. He and his company made high-quality HIV-AIDS antiretroviral medicines cheap enough so that poor people in developing countries, especially in Africa, can access them. Treatment used to cost US$12,000-US$15,000 per patient per year. Cipla brought it down to about US$350 a patient a year. Hamied saved millions of people by providing affordable – not free – medicines.

The next generation becoming a catalyst for change. Asia 30 years ago is vastly different from what it is now. The economic transformation of the region, particularly in countries such as Singapore and China, has been exceptionally rapid. Within Asian families, successive generations have vastly differing experiences in terms of their exposure to war and political upheaval, economic deprivation, the impact of the West, the globalization of business, and the shifting balance of tradition and modernity. The younger generations are more influenced by Western trends and practices, and are leading the ideological shifts within their rather traditional family philanthropies.

RA: Tell us something about yourself that speaks to the heart of who you are. 

JS: In the days before this book went to print, I wondered whether I should change the title, for what right did I have to write a book about happiness? I have never been a naturally happy and cheerful person, and there have been many stretches in my life when I struggled with depression.

But through all this, my career, first as a teacher and then as a philanthropy advisor, kept me happy. As a teacher, I woke up every day looking forward to being in the classroom, knowing that I was being of service to my students. When I became a philanthropy advisor, day after day I met with inspiring people working hard to make a difference, and their concern for something bigger than them made me realize that there is more to life than worrying about my own problems. When I came out publicly about my own mental health struggles, I found that strength in somehow being able to help others who were still suffering in silence and in shame. I found my own giving way to happiness.

RA: What lead you to research and write a book on this particular topic? 

JS: In the winter of 2007, after a six-month post-MBA job hunt that made me feel depressed and insecure about my career prospects, I landed a dream job in a field that I did not even know existed: philanthropy advisory. One of the world’s largest private banks invited me to join their team of in-house philanthropy advisors, and I began my unusual career of advising extraordinarily wealthy people on their charitable activities.

In the 10 years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve had the chance to meet not just with big-ticket philanthropists but also with so many inspiring people from the social sector – social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, prominent activists, young students and volunteers, and other idealists from all over the world, and from different walks of life. They taught me that giving is not just for the rich, and oftentimes those who do not have much give even more of their time, their talents, and their lives to something that matters deeply to them. I realized that many of the people I was meeting were so fundamentally fulfilled, and I knew that it was because each of them was in every sense of the word a giver. I wanted to write a book that focused on what I saw day to day – the life-changing power of giving on the giver.

RA: What causes are near and dear to your heart? How do you choose where to focus your giving? 

JS: As a philanthropy advisor, I work with my clients to help them channel their wealth, power and influence toward social good. It’s a role where I wear multiple hats – strategy consultant, family advisor, personal career counselor, onnector and event planner all rolled into one. My approach is that my clients’ philanthropic endeavors should not only be making a positive impact, but should also be personally rewarding, fulfilling, life-changing and fun. I don’t believe in giving until it hurts; rather, I believe in giving until it feels great.

In my case, I have always been a huge animal lover so I will always do something related to that. I also experienced first-hand, in my early 20s, the benefits of having mentors, particularly women mentors. So, I am interested in things that have to do with mentorship. I also find that my interests are evolving and widening as I meet more people in the social sector, and I’m about to join the board of a wonderful organization focused on peace building (more soon!).

RA: Look ahead five years. What do you see the fundraising/philanthropic landscape looking like? In general, and in Asia specifically? 

JS: Some things I see happening:

Family foundations will become more and more of a status symbol. The enormous increase in affluence in Asia is providing far greater opportunities for giving. There will be greater pressure on, as well as greater desire within, wealthy families to give as much money away as they spend. Philanthropy will be more and more important to the wealthy, and will even be a status symbol. There are signs that it already is. Celebrity philanthropy will emerge. As wealthy families become more and more public about their philanthropy, they themselves will become “celebrities” by virtue of their big-ticket giving. At the same time, they will enlist notable personalities from the world of entertainment, politics and sports to draw greater attention to their cause. In India, for example, celebrities such as Amitabh Bachchan have played a crucial role in eradicating polio through public service campaigns. Ultra-high net worth families and individuals will realize that partnering with well-loved celebrities multiplies social innovation and impact.

Philanthropists will take on more controversial issues. Right now, most philanthropy in Asia is directed toward the improvement of education and health care and the broad goal of poverty alleviation. These issues are hardly controversial; everyone agrees that these are important matters to address. In the near future, I can see that Asian philanthropists will be bolder and riskier. Some of the causes they back may be contentious and polarizing, but they will back them anyway. It is already happening in the USA. For example, Giving Pledge signatory Peter B. Lewis funds much of the movement to enact laws that give patients access to marijuana as relief for pain and nausea, and he has made no secret of being one of those patients himself, using marijuana to help with pain following the amputation of his leg. The Lien Foundation, one of the leading foundations in Singapore, prides itself in its radical approach. Its “Happy Coffins” initiative overturns the stigma of death and turns the coffin from a symbol of fear, dread and grief into a positive and life-affirming expression of art. I would like to see Asian philanthropists embrace more provocative causes just as the Lien Foundation does. My dream is to work with a philanthropist with the commitment and audacity to back controversial, underfunded causes such as mental illness, gay rights or sex education.

[The Resource Alliance staff is super stoked about having secured Jenny as a keynote presenter at IFC Asia, our premier event in the Asia Pacific region, taking place 26-28 June in Bangkok. Check it out. We also wouldn’t hate it you’d help spread the word!]