Dawn Franks

Several letters are spread across your desk or dining room table. Return envelopes lay close by. The decision you face is which one or two will receive your donation check. You like all these nonprofit organizations. You have friends who volunteer or sit on the board of directors. You’ve attended several of their special events.

But which ones are important to you? Which ones make the most difference or have the greatest impact? Another question sneaks in: where will your donation matter the most? Quickly another follows: how will you know the donation made even a small difference? Too many questions. Soon you find yourself stacking the letters for another day or maybe even tossing the whole stack.

You’re not alone in your frustration. I bet that if you brought the subject up to a group of friends, you’d find everyone shares similar feelings.

I could suggest various decision-making strategies to solve the dilemma. Make lists, sort, rank, score.

But as a philanthropy adviser, I like to start simple — at the core of the dilemma. First, understand what motivates how you give. I'd start with a simple exercise to determine giving values called Giving Fingerprints and focus on what values matter to you when you write a donation check or attend a special event fundraiser. It’s simple because you don’t have to decide between organizations, types of services, children, unemployed, challenged or ill.

Identifying your giving values first is a great way to help anyone sort through their stack of letters. But there is another dilemma. What if you’ve identified your values, thought about last year’s donations and looked through your stack of letters only to discover you wish you gave differently.

What if what you care about is shifting?

Philosopher Edna-Ullmann-Margalit has written about “altering one’s life project and inner core” by dreaming of being someone different. She calls it the “Old Person” of before and the “New Person” that exists afterward. She believes just dreaming of the “New Person” can have a dramatic impact on us. Research supports the idea.

Let’s try.

Imagine becoming a philanthropist. The bank account from which you will write checks has plenty of cash, and investments are waiting to refill the account every time you donate. No obstacle stands in your way. You can give as much as you want to any project or organization that captures your attention.

As long as you’re experimenting with being a philanthropist, you might as well experiment with different values. Perhaps it would feel exciting to take a risk and give to a nonprofit exploring a brand-new service never before provided in your community.

Or maybe you would like to sign on for the long haul, give to a project and measure success in the future because everything about the gift feels right — strong leadership with the right solution at the right time.

Now is your chance to write a whole new story, test out different styles of giving and learn new practices. You don’t just maximize your current values — the ones that describe you so well; you write a new equation. You test out new practices. Rather than a decision process, you opt for an entirely new way.

It is in opting that you test new directions.

Another philosopher, this one from Yale, L.A. Paul, describes it as a transformative experience. “Part of being alive is awaiting the revelation of who you’ll become.”

Researchers do not believe such transformations are sudden, rather that we try them on — like striking a pose in the mirror before going out on a date, we try on values we hope to possess.

Take another look at that stack of letters. Search for one organization that piques your curiosity enough to test out a different style of giving. Aspire to something different; hatch plans for what different looks like and what to expect.

Experiment with being a philanthropist now, test giving more or giving with expectations. Test giving to one organization multiple times during the year or pick three to analyze closely before giving. Test a whole new practice and explore different ways to give well.

Dawn Franks, author of "Giving Fingerprints," is CEO of Your Philanthropy. She provides advising services to families, businesses and foundations to enhance the giving experience and maximize impact. She writes a blog, the YP Journal, at Comments and questions are welcome. Send to

Recent Stories You Might Have Missed