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Three Philanthropy Lessons from Notre Dame

Following the disastrous fire at Notre Dame cathedral in April several notable French philanthropists pledged very large sums - over $100m each - to the rebuilding project.

Within 24 hours there was quite a lot of criticism of these donations and their donors on a whole variety of grounds - that similar tragedies elsewhere haven't resulted in similar gifts, that this exposes gross inequalities, that people should give their philanthropy to people not buildings and others.

Lots of people (including the New York Times) have carried analysis pieces on this and tried to comment on whether the criticisms are justified.

My purpose is slightly different - to help you if you are a potential individual or corporate donor to any project, at any scales, to avoid the kind of criticism received by the Notre Dame donors, which I am sure is not what they were hoping for! So… what should you do to avoid this kind of situation?

1. Be careful about giving outside your usual area of philanthropy

Most people wouldn't suddenly invest a large amount of money in a business venture that was totally outside their area of expertise. And, generally, the same applies to philanthropy. If you have an area you give to regularly (whether that's international aid, medical research or major cultural buildings) you know the issues, the people and, hopefully, have a clear rationale for your giving that you can and are happy to defend publicly.

Obviously you can give outside your normal passions if there's an exceptional case but you should be aware it does increase the risk of negative publicity and have prepared your PR strategy in advance.

2. Consider balancing your giving

Over the longer term it's well worth cultivating interests in more than one area of philanthropy, both because the world is full of great causes and because it makes it easier to deal with some external criticisms (if you are a generous giver to hospices as well as galleries it helps counter the argument that your giving is elitist for example).

But even immediately a savvy splitting up of a gift could counter the potential for negative PR. Imagine if François-Henri Pinault or Bernard Arnault had announced they were giving €50m to the Notre Dame appeal and €50m to (for example) UNICEF for its work in Syria rather than €100m to Notre Dame... a vast proportion of the critique would have been instantly swept away.

This isn't to say that your giving should be determined solely by what the public decides is popular (funding unpopular causes, such as work with prisoners, is really vital) but it is to say that where philanthropy is concerned it's definitely not the case that all publicity is good and that different gifts may well evoke very different reactions.

3. Plan your giving and responses

I may be wrong, but it seemed to me that the Notre Dame donors were surprised by the backlash; whereas none of my colleagues in philanthropy advice were.

Good philanthropy advice would have helped these donors think about the amount, timing and messaging of their gifts and ensured they had a press and PR plan to counter any criticism and get their story out on the front foot with a compelling narrative.


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