by James Hodge and Scott Arthur, Founders of Appreciative Philanthropy

As the self-proclaimed “Boys of Joy,” James Hodge and Scott Arthur have made it their professional mission to increase the joy in philanthropy by teaching development professionals to listen first and then strive to understand how the benefactor wants to make an impact in the world. Doing so amplifies both joy for the benefactor and philanthropy for the institution.

“Whole days go by when I don’t think about giving away $48M.”


This donor’s fascinating response to an invitation to give a transformational gift for cancer research is most insightful when connected to the philanthropist’s second sentence. “But if you are asking me to make a gift in tribute to my wife who always supported my crazy entrepreneurial ideas, then that is a whole other matter. My wife trusted me unconditionally, supported me through thick and very thin, and allowed me to take a second mortgage on the house to meet payroll. She was all in, and I must be so in her honor.”

An inspiring gift was committed not through a serious cognitive process—thinking; but rather through deep connection with compassionate empathy—a feeling. Instead of being a rarity in our work, we have found over our 62 years in development that empathy is the key to compassion, compassion to gratitude, and gratitude to altruism and generosity. We feel our way through the important decisions around giving, caring, and sharing. We are hardwired for reciprocity, for returning favor with favor, kindness with kindness.

Both nature and nurture incline us to be generous. Yet we have made a philanthropic business out of something natural, rewarding, and joyful. Not only is this counterintuitive, but also counterproductive; it is not the right thing to do, nor is it the smart thing to do.

So why do we persist in a business-like, sales-minded approach to our work? I think because we have drafted for far too long off the world of consumerism, the business of business, the notion that people have to be pushed and persuaded to give. Told and sold. No philanthropic joy calories exist in such transactional relationships. The work is really about ethical inspiration and shared meaning.

A sense of mutual empathy must exist where both partners “experience being experienced” according to Daniel Goleman in his important work, Social Intelligence. As professionals, we must become meaning makers rather than money takers. Cultivate empathy, celebrate compassion, and be emotionally attuned to benefactors and their natural inclinations to care.

Maarten Bout, Director of Development at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and his colleague Dr. Sara Konrath, PhD, at the Lily School of Philanthropy conducted a small study in which they found links between the expressed empathy in contact reports from development officers and increases in giving from donors. Empathy allows us, Goleman says, to “grasp the minds of others, not through conceptual reasoning, but through direct simulation; by feeling, not by thinking.”

When we visit benefactors with the intention of persuading them to give, the possibilities of true connection are dissipated. We all have a natural ability to discern when someone wants something from us, rather than wanting to create an important experience that is mutually rewarding. Done to, rather than created together. This necessitates an “agenda-less presence,” according to Goleman. Not coming with the intention of selling and taking, but with the intention of learning, discerning, and understanding. No social capital is gained through a selling posture.

“Nourishing empathy lets us help not just ourselves, but also everyone we interact with, whether for a moment or a lifetime.”

—Dr. Helen Ries, The Empathy Effect

Without empathy it is easier to exploit others and the planet itself. We take, not share; we hoard, not give; we go against both our natures and nature, extracting from both.

Can there be sustainable empathy in our work? We believe so. Can empathy be taught in early ages and throughout one’s lifetime? Experts contend, yes. Can we be sensitive to what is “enough” in our lives versus a relentlessness striving for abundance, for more and more and more things in our lives? Let’s hope so. This will affect how we hire in our profession, what skills we will look for in colleagues. It will affect how to train for the “soft essential side” of the work, how to move from being takers to creators of shared and right experiences, how to recognize when we are “judging” and deliberately replacing that judgement with curiosity. For curiosity is the gateway to empathy. It is another one of those vital shifts we must commit ourselves to in this profession that will bring both benefactors and development professionals the full richness of the human experience.

-With thanks to Maarten Bout