Learn to Give Effectively (Heather Larkin Commentary)

Arkansas consistently ranks among the most generous states in the nation. Last year’s “How America Gives” report from the Chronicle of Philanthropy reaffirmed what numerous previous studies have suggested: When you examine the percentage of discretionary income contributed to charity, Arkansans are near the top of the heap. In fact, “How America Gives” calculated Arkansas’ average giving rate at 6.3 percent of discretionary income, placing us seventh in the nation.

Yet, our state’s challenges persist. This October, the Arkansas Community Foundation will release the second edition of our “Aspire Arkansas” report, which provides county-by-county data on more than 30 indicators of community well-being, compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau and several state agencies. The data presented in the report paint a stark picture: Arkansas ranks fourth in the nation for poverty, with 19.3 percent of Arkansans living below the poverty line. We rank 50th in the nation for number of adults who do not have a bachelor’s degree. We are eighth in the nation for adult obesity, with 67.1 percent of adult Arkansans considered overweight or obese.

Unquestionably, our state’s generosity is one of our greatest assets. However, overcoming the challenges facing Arkansas requires us each to give with our heads, not just our hearts. It’s not enough to give; we’ve got to give smart.

Giving smart means keeping an eye on the numbers. Right now there’s a strong movement among charitable organizations to use data more effectively to measure the impact of our work. While numbers can’t paint the full picture of the lives changed by a given charity, they can give us some indication of whether the organization has a program that is consistently effective and well managed. How much did students’ test scores improve after participating in an after-school program? How many participants were able to find work after completing a job skills course? We owe it to ourselves to ask these questions when considering using our limited charitable dollars to invest in a particular program or organization.

Data can also help us prioritize the needs in our communities. In some areas, working to improve local public schools might be the greatest need, while in other places, providing job skills training to attract new industry might be a priority. Arkansas Community Foundation created the “Aspire Arkansas” report to make it easy for local leaders to compare data on a variety of quality-of-life issues to identify top priorities for their own communities. When you examine key data sets like third-grade reading and math scores, teen pregnancy rates, unemployment rates, adult obesity rates and median household incomes side by side, it becomes easier to determine how to allocate charitable giving dollars to improve your community.

Giving smart isn’t only about numbers, though. It’s also about partnerships. In his book “Grassroots Philanthropy,” Bill Somerville, a nationally respected expert on creative philanthropy, says that the key to effective giving is finding and supporting outstanding people who are doing important work. He says the real work of the philanthropist is “the continuing investigation of our community, its problems, its potential, and most of all, the outstanding people with whom we should be making common cause.”

Implicit in Somerville’s definition is the charge to step outside of our comfort zones and seek out new relationships and new knowledge about our community. This might mean visiting a local nonprofit to learn more about what it does, talking to the people who benefit from the charitable programs you support, recruiting diverse partners to get involved in a cause you care about or identifying collaborators in other communities who can expose you to new ideas. Our philanthropic dollars stretch further when we work together; it’s just common sense that people who share a common cause can be more effective together than alone.

Smart giving doesn’t happen by accident. Like any worthwhile endeavor — building a career, earning a degree, raising a family or saving for retirement — becoming an effective giver requires planning and effort. However, creating a plan for your personal giving is one of the smartest investments you can make in terms of the potential payoff for your community and the causes you care about most. Arkansans have a heart for giving; let’s have a head for giving, too.

Heather Larkin is president and CEO of Arkansas Community Foundation. Email her at HLarkin@ARCF.org.