In the days following a tragic fire at Notre-Dame in Paris, media reports of close to $1 billion being raised for the historic cathedral’s restoration captured the world’s attention. Audiences marveled at the outpouring of support from high powered names like François-Henri Pinault, Bernard Arnault and the Bettencourt Meyers family. But almost immediately following the praise came a counter sentiment that frowned upon the size of the gifts and questioned donor’s motives.
Critics began to flood various media spaces with their opinions, offering causes that were perceived to be more worthy of donations and pointing out how such a large sum could do more good applied to causes to alleviate human suffering.
“Flint still doesn’t have clean water” “People are starving in Yemen” “We have homeless veterans sleeping in the streets all across the United States” “Three Black churches in Louisiana were just burned down” all became common sentiments expressed online.
Likely due at least in part to the religious nature of the structures, the comparisons between the support for the Notre Dame and the three churches located in St. Landry Parish, LA resonated. A flurry of social media activity including a few famous voices urged the public “not to forget” the Louisiana churches because Notre Dame “will be well funded”. The attention helped the fundraising campaign which had previously hovered around $100,000 surge close to $2 million, surpassing its $1.8 million goal.
Then Weeksville Heritage Center launched an emergency crowdfunding campaign on April 30th to save the center from closing and afford it time to plan for the future. The unique historic house museum located in Crown Heights Brooklyn, NY preserves the history of one of the largest free black communities in pre-Civil War America. The goal is $200,000. Currently, the campaign has raised $90,000 from approximately 1,300 donors over 8 days.
As word spreads about Weeksville’s campaign, I wonder how they will fare. How will increased knowledge of the site’s historical significance affect donors? In a rapidly changing Brooklyn, preserving Black History is vitally important. Weeksville Heritage Center is the site of the first Free Black community established in 1838, only 11 years after slavery was abolished in New York. What will donors think about the long-term prospects of the institution? Reports of financial difficulties have been published before. According to its most recent publicly available Form 990, the organization raises about $1.3 million per year from grants and contributions with expenses being slightly higher. Will Weekville’s association with high profile names help? The fundraising video featuring Michael K. Williams, a Brooklyn native and successful actor (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) is making rounds.
These stories follow a familiar pattern. A nonprofit organization finds its way into the limelight, often by way of tragedy or the revelation of some connection to someone famous. Media attention follows and audiences are moved to give. Media follows up with cheers or jeers and everyone goes back to business as usual until the next attention grabbing headline.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the benefit of working for a variety of causes and with a wildly diverse set of donors. One of the most fascinating aspects of my work has been exploring why we give. Why do we give the way we give? Why do so many donors pile on and give where more than enough has already been given? Why do we scrutinize one donor’s gifts and only applaud and celebrate another’s? Conversations about the moral and ethical ramifications of giving to Harvard’s endowment, The Gates Foundation or Historically Black Colleges and Universities always lead to interesting observations. I will never tire of learning about the why because it reveals so much about what we value.
Now is the perfect time to ask yourself why.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge what motivates us to give can be more (or less) than pure altruism. Are you giving because its what your friends or colleagues are doing? Does being a philanthropist help you fit an image? Were you brought up in a household that placed importance on giving and its simply how you live? Do you give in reaction to a tragedy because you don’t know any other way to respond? Do you “perform philanthropy” and make donations without really giving much thought about why?
Your answers to these questions will reveal what you value.
Will you give to help save Weeksville Heritage Center. Why?
Did you contribute to the recovery of the St. Landry Parish churches in Louisiana?
Why do you think there was so much support pledged for Notre-Dame? Why do you think those donors were so quick to commit? Would you give to support its restoration? Why?