Linking (Gestalt) Coaching with Philanthropy: “Where Philanthropy IS more than Money”


As published in the Gestalt Review



This reflection presents how certain Gestalt principles of the Cape Cod Model©—Strategic and Intimate Interactions, Well-Developed Competencies/Less Developed Competencies— advanced at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC), along with Beisser’s (1970) notion of “The Paradoxical Theory of Change,” can be used to frame the behavior within the “asking and giving” culture of philanthropy. These principles, in offering opportunities for change, would improve the experience of the “asker” and the “giver.” Philanthropy is more than the money. A resilient philanthropic culture is generated when people experience the joy and passion of working together in generous support of community.

Introduction Making a philanthropic gift today can feel like stepping into a giant system in which money is the only reason for being there. For example, a response to a direct mail letter with a gift soon brings more letters of asking. “Thank you” letters sometimes hold additional requests for money. When a person asks for money and a gift is made, the donor may hear nothing until more money is wanted. It is rare that donors are asked for their perspectives or invited to share in the organization’s successes. People feel alienated from this money-raising system if there is no real experience of being “seen” or valued. Another example: a long-time volunteer leader and donor listed her college as a beneficiary for memorial gifts remembering her father. Gifts were restricted to a scholarship named for him. Two months after his death, a letter was inappropriately sent to him reporting the name of the student who received the scholarship.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals reported that for every 100 new donors gained in 2011, 107 were lost in 2012. Each year organizations are forced to replace 60% of their donors with new people. This constant pressure to find new donors is real and costly. When faced with a funding need, small to midsize organizations look to philanthropy as the source of funds and often do not consider the resources needed or other impacts of creating philanthropic activities. It is perceived that fundraising can be driven solely by volunteers who ask people for money; inadequate planning is done, and organizational budgets can be hard for a donor to understand.

When faced with “asking and giving,” volunteer leaders and executives of the organization experience a real tension. The reality of asking often gives rise to resistance, and the resulting feeling is: “I hate to ask for money.” Caught between the pressure of needing the money and the vulnerable feelings associated with “asking,” leaders and executives have created processes to protect the emotions of askers and secure the money. The asker focuses on the organization’s need for money to operate and maintain services. The experience and skills required to create authentic relationships have long been underdeveloped. Making donor renewal a goal would strengthen donor relationships, enable needed funding, and give significance to the “asking and giving” process. The not-for-profit organization would benefit from donors who held a deeper understanding of the community need being served. Renewing donors would also develop an understanding of the organization’s program effectiveness and results. The Gestalt approach offers guidance in turning this currently money-focused culture into a community- impacted, donor-focused culture.

Strategic and Intimate Interactions with a Need for Balance

When an organizational volunteer leader meets with a potential donor, a unique opportunity to build a genuine relationship presents itself. A framework for the interaction can be created if we think of their contact as having strategic and intimate components. S. Nevis, S. Backman, and E. Nevis (2003) offer definitions for these two kinds of interactions and propose a model for appreciating the differences between them (p. 135). Intimate interactions are those that bring people closer through caring what each person is thinking or feeling. Strategic interactions apply when the goal is to accomplish a specific task; here the intent is to use hierarchical power and be less concerned with equality in the relationship. This model can have meaning for “coaching” the philanthropic interaction between asker and giver, insofar as the latter is a system designed primarily to bring people together to support each other in accomplishing goals. Let us look at certain qualities of strategic and intimate interactions as they might be applied in coaching philanthropy askers to work with greater relational awareness (pp. 141-142 passim).

Strategic Interactions reveal the ability:

•to be focused on the goal without being deflected by emotions, i.e., to ask for money; •of those on each side of the hierarchical system to be bold in the service of time, i.e., volunteer leaders and staff; •of all to mobilize energy in the face of possible disappointment, i.e., to experience rejections; •to share only the information necessary to effect an action, i.e., to focus on getting the money.

Intimate interactions reveal the ability:

•to express interest in another, i.e., to give attention to donor’s interest and expectations; •to ask questions and give answers to learn more about the other’s thoughts and ideas, i.e., to build trust and connection; •to suspend the use of hierarchy during the conversation, i.e., to create a sense of “us-ness” (Simon, 2012, p. 297, emphasis added); •to be open to influencing and being influenced, i.e., to share opinions and experience; •to have a spontaneous exchange without a definite outcome in mind, i.e., to spend time getting to know each other and sharing stories of the organization’s work; •to stay focused in the present moment, i.e., the need to listen and be with the potential donor, and not the money.

The primary purpose of the asker and giver relationship is to get a gift. Donors want to support a mission that is meaningful and connected to them. That desire is directed to benefit beneficiaries through the programs of the not-for-profit. Learning the impact of their gift becomes a strong incentive for renewing their support. Empathy is necessary for building trust and understanding. When leaders share their experiences and stories, telling why they commit to an organization, the donor-leader relationship begins to feel more authentic. The potential donor feels more comfortable with sharing thoughts and asking questions.

Meetings between volunteer leader and potential donor typically focus on the hierarchical nature of the relationship with more emphasis on the input from the leader who works toward an atmosphere of “us-ness.” Potential donors expect the volunteer leader and executive to mobilize the potential excitement and energy, so as to create openness and learn what could lead to a gift. For leaders and executives, balancing strategic and intimate interactions comes with hands-on experience. Balance can also be achieved if two askers visit a donor because each person can then take responsibility for a different type of interaction. Balancing strategic and intimate interactions can enable executives, leaders, and donors to share the joy and passion that comes from being generous, caring, and working together for the benefit of people in our communities.

Well-Developed Competencies and Less-Developed Competencies© of Leaders and Executives in Organizations

Volunteer leaders and nonprofit executives have an established a process for working together to ask for philanthropic gifts; the ways of doing this work can even become habit-like. The process includes creating a list of people to contact and writing a story about why the money is needed and how it will be used. Potential donors are seen as the sources of money, often called “targets” in the language of fundraising. Askers’ skills are well-developed, without focusing on aspects needed to build real relationships. Consequently, the opportunity for a donor to feel generosity and joy in supporting a community need is lost. Most people can recall a negative experience in being asked to give. The creation of a respectful relationship on the part of askers in order to have the long-term support of donors would involve their discovering and learning skills that are less-developed to accompany those that are already well-developed.

One way to understand Well-Developed Competencies and Less-Developed Competencies© is to look at polarities as found in a range of behaviors (Simon, 2012). Focusing on a well-developed behavior is not so much to indicate existence of a certain behavior, as it is to signal a person’s being limited only to that behavior. For example, interrupting a colleague can be an important skill if the colleague is perceived to be going off track; always interrupting, without ever hearing the other person’s perspective, is a problem (Simon, p. 299). Additional instances of behavior polarities include collaborative/ competitive; flexible/firm; always on time/always late; open to new ideas/ closed to new ideas. Once well-developed skills have been identified and acknowledged, one can begin to build an awareness of less-developed skills. With respect to philanthropy coaching, such knowledge can enable Well- Developed Competencies to be balanced with Less-Developed Competencies, thereby creating greater flexibility in building relationships that might motivate financial giving and engage the donor year after year.

Identifying Well-Developed Competencies© in leaders of philanthropy programs is a good place to start. In the process as it has commonly been created, askers tend to have well-developed skills that ensure they can raise money. These skills of asking are so proficient that there is minor awareness of the less-developed skills that might support authentic relationship-building. The list of selected behaviors used with donors reveals how well-developed “asking” skills can enable awareness of less-developed relationship-building skills:


Talking only about the organization’s need.Learn the person’s “why” and “what.”

Making the assumption of donor interest.Talk about the person’s philanthropic Interest.

Asking for money without a real relationship.Invite the person to share interest or connection.

Asking for money without “how” and “what.”Provide information on the community need.

Does not share “why” donors are important.Discuss how their generosity makes a difference.

Talk at the donor.Invite open discussion and questions.

Value larger gifts over smaller “gifts.”Honor the “giver” not the gift.

Focus on the money.Focus on the community’s ability to meet need.

Talk about how they hate to “ask for money.”Think of community investment in terms of needs and benefits, and of the donor’s desire to partner and impact quality of life.

Volunteer leaders and not-for-profit executives in the USA are successfully raising $300B annually by focusing on the money. Their Well-Developed Competencies©, as listed above, indicate ways in which they support their accomplishment. Since 2004, however, people who give lower and mid-range gifts are saying “no” more often; furthermore, they are not renewing their gifts. Focuing on Less-Developed Competencies© can provide opportunities for leaders and executives to learn how potential donors may want to impact community needs. Through their gifts, potential donors can participate in meeting real needs like hunger, education, health, etc. Leaders with the well- developed skills mentioned above tend to connect donors with organizational needs around money and program costs, instead of connecting them, for example, with feeding and educating people or with supporting health and home issues for those in need. Such experience leaves donors with limited trust, little connection, and almost no knowledge of the impact of their gifts. The reflection written here is not meant to be critical of volunteer leaders or of executives who effectively raise money for important programs and services. Rather, it is about changing the “giving” experience into one in which donors would want to renew gifts; that means adjusting current “asking” practices.

The process of motivating change can be found in a stance of optimism, the foundation of which is an orientation toward the future (Melnick and S. Nevis, 2005, p. 24). Optimism is based on the belief that people take responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves. Embracing optimism is a positive way of strengthening less-developed skills, that is, of having askers evolve a process through which donors can have meaningful experiences. Then donors may renew their giving. When donors renew, they are recognizing the organization as a credible community resource in which supporters are affirmed as vital partners. Volunteer leaders can move forward with an optimistic perspective, building awareness and learning how organizationally-focused “asking” skills actually limit real relationship building. Setting a priority for donor-renewal provides positive space within the organizational culture and respects the donor as an investor and a partner. A commitment to renewal affirms the importance of the donor’s role in the philanthropic experience.

The Paradoxical Theory of Change

In my years as a professional in philanthropy, I do not remember creating a goal specifically designed to encourage donor-renewal. There was always a desire for donors to renew their support, yet it was not a serious priority. The key motivation for leaders and executives is around money. Every year, significant resources are invested to secure new donors. The time askers spend with donors is focused on “How do we ask for a gift?” Once the money is given to the organization, a thank-you letter most often is the last contact until the donor is asked again to provide more money.

If donor experience is to become a reality, volunteer leaders and not-for- profit executives must engage fully with the “asking and giving” environment that exists today. Change will emerge out of full understanding of what we are doing right now. "The Paradoxical Theory of Change” (Beisser, 1970) states that change occurs when people become what they are, not when they try to become what they are not. Real transformation does not happen by using force or by “trying” to be different from what it IS right now. Change evolves when leaders are open and curious about their current process. This “paradoxical” theory of change is the affirmation that leaders can change by first becoming aware of their real and authentic selves.

As organizational leaders and executives are coached to build awareness and appreciation for their culture of philanthropy, they will become more conscious of their own experiences with donors. Volunteer leaders working with not-for-profit executives can assess their interactions with donors and share how it feels for them to ask for money. In these discussions, they can explore how beliefs about money impact their interactions with donors. Asking people to help fund organizational activities can stimulate feelings of vulnerability, which can also trigger “fight or flight” responses. Identifying uncomfortable feelings helps clarify beliefs about money and asking for it. In this process of exploration, people learn what makes meaningful relationship-building a challenge for them; such knowledge, however, will enable change to occur. As leaders and executives are coached to examine the role of donors and philanthropy in their organizations, they will come to understand more about the experience of “asking and giving.” Understanding what philanthropy is for themselves as well as for donors will allow these principal people to think about softening the “giving” culture and so create an experience both asker and giver would want to share; and one in which donors would want to renew their financial support. Leaders and executives can inform relationship-building by establishing what they would like donors to believe and experience as supporters of an organization.

How does Gestalt coaching support the sort of change just described? Gestalt principles are optimistic, grounded in trust and connection; they provide the support needed for authentic relationships to develop with regard to leaders and executives as well as donors. Awareness of expectations and sharing of experiences is the basis for meaningful change. In this culture, people can share ideas and try new ways of working together. Attitudes of perfection and judgment around “asking and giving” will be reduced. The money-focused activity will begin to soften.


An elderly man called the development director of the local hospital. He shared with her how much he had enjoyed giving to the hospital. Over the years, he had had a good deal of interaction with hospital staff and patients.He told the development director that, whenever he drove by the hospital, he thought of how he had helped make the hospital a reality for his community. He felt the joy and passion of giving and sharing, experiences that had kept him renewing his gifts. It would be my hope that all donors would experience philanthropy so, as a legacy for themselves.

Philanthropy is more than the money that funds programs and services to meet community needs. Philanthropy is when leaders, staff, and donors work together to create a place to serve the larger community, while supporting a passion and experiencing the joy of their generosity. Gestalt coaching as a guiding force empowers leaders and executives to pay attention to donor experience. The “grab ‘n go” money-focused culture of today can begin to soften and so encourage more people to participate in philanthropy.

Philanthropy is a fact of life. Not only does it raise required funds, but it also allows us to share in making our communities stronger with an improved quality of life for all. Individuals want to share in making their communities better places in which to live or, following the vision of Gestalt International Study Center, in “Transforming the Way We Live and Work in the World.”