Getting real: The power of "authentic social impact engagement"

When families embark on a journey to make philanthropy a part of their lives across generations, it often starts with simple concepts: Having fun as a family, getting in touch with nature, being authentic and open about values, donating canned goods or clothing to families in need, recycling cardboard and aluminum cans, celebrating every birthday and holiday with a big cake and a gift to charity, buying wrapping paper from the school fundraiser, contributing to a handful of favorite charities--even eating healthy food and appreciating every peaceful moment. In any household, “doing good” is a powerful way to create a sense of belonging--in the family, the community, and the world.

But is there more to the story? Yes.

A series of three pilot studies yielded a process called “authentic social impact engagement.” In the social impact arena, the drivers of consumer action are fundamentally different from the drivers of consumer action in a purely commercial setting. Indeed, authenticity is the key to action-oriented engagement by a consumer of philanthropy, whether that consumer is a donor to a nonprofit, a volunteer for a charity, a consumer purchasing a brand that supports a cause, or even a homeowner committed to recycling paper products and aluminum cans.    

So what is “authentic social impact engagement? The formula is based on four parts: Affirmation, Education, Inspiration and Motivation.


Before a person can become deeply engaged, emotionally and intellectually, in a community or a cause, or even philanthropy in general, he or she must feel affirmed that what he or she is doing already to “do good” is in fact good. This includes not only giving to charities, of course, but also volunteering in the community, recycling and respecting the environment, donating canned goods, serving on boards of directors or committees, and attending community events. This also includes emerging methods of social impact engagement, such as purchasing products that support a cause, marketing favorite charities through social media, and even committing to personal and family health and wellness. The emerging methods of social impact are particularly important to members of the next generation, who view their social impact as wide-ranging and not restricted to the definition of “charity” according to the Internal Revenue Code. “Affirmation” requires acknowledgement–without judgment–that giving manifests itself in a variety of forms.


Opportunities for learning about philanthropy are in demand across all audiences. Students are interested in techniques that result in lives actually being changed for the better. Parents want to know how to teach their young children about doing good. Grandparents want to know how to leverage philanthropy to create a multi-generational platform for preserving family values. Young professionals are seeking new ways to access business information about nonprofits, especially online. Corporate executives seek techniques for charitable planning that meet their tax and estate planning objectives. The educational component of community engagement is a rich environment for testing and deploying best practices in philanthropy education to help people understand how philanthropy makes a difference in the quality of life of the people they wish to serve. Note, however, that authentic engagement requires authentic education; education is a process of self-discovery–not a prescription by philanthropy professionals for how to do good the “right” way for the “right” causes.


Stories are powerful. Stories of people and companies making an impact will inspire others  to pursue their own charitable objectives. Certainly the cause selected is an important part of any story. Too often, however, the “giving” side of the equation is left out of the story–the point of view of the person doing the good. How did the experience with philanthropy make the giver feel? How did her life improve? How did the giver’s relationships with his children and family get better by pursuing philanthropy together? How did the giver make positive changes to her mental and physical health by integrating philanthropy into her life? How was the giver’s life enriched by feelings of gratitude and the ability to help people in need? Generosity empowers the giver, and a story is much more powerful to inspire others when it reinforces that theme.


Motivation is the moment of truth. Does a student, an employee, an executive, or a parent have the tools and information to act on a philanthropic desire? The first key to successfully motivating a person to “do good” and become more involved in philanthropy is to offer easy ideas in step-by-step format so that it does not seem overwhelming. This is especially true for a young professional or a donor in the early stages of philanthropic involvement. These “emerging” philanthropists are typically busy in their careers and family lives. Plus, they are accustomed to multi-tasking in bite-sized activities, usually conducted online. People at all levels of giving frequently voice this frustration: “I want to help, but I just don’t know how I can help.” It is not useful for a person to be told to “get involved” with nothing specific to back it up–no call to action.

The second key to successful motivation in the social impact space is that people must believe that their acts of doing good, no matter how small, make a difference. “My gift doesn’t matter” is often top of mind for people giving money or donating time. Changing that thinking will better motivate people to get involved–on their own terms–in something specific.

Now–are you ready to rethink “doing good”? By isolating a person’s relationship with the act of giving itself through the four-step formula for authentic engagement, executives, civic leaders, parents, employees, students–and anyone else engaged in philanthropy–will be more satisfied with the experience. And that’s success by doing good.

LifestyleLaura McKnight