Philanthropists in the 21st century don’t want to write a check unaware of how the money will be spent. They want dollars targeted and returns guaranteed, according to David Odahowski, president and CEO of the Edyth Bush Foundation. “Donors are consumers,” he said at an SRQ event in July, “and they want the Amazon Prime experience.” Odahowski delivered the keynote address at the SB2 installment Good Hand: Building Capacity in Our Philanthropic Sector. We caught up with the nonprofit leader to discuss changes in giving. 

What is the No. 1 thing foundations and nonprofits need to do differently as they embark in the 21st century? David Odahowski: The one thing foundations could really do better is to be more respectful of the nonprofit leaders that come to it for resources. Obviously, there’s a power imbalance, but you have to understand that people who are creating a nonprofit organization, they are stepping forward with their financial resources, their time resources, and we need to treat them in a business-like way. I have had years of stories about how nonprofit executives go to foundations and they are not responded to in a proper business manner. If someone calls you, you return the call. If someone emails you, you return the email. And when you are entering into a possible discussion transaction with someone, be respectful of their time, and give them a decision as soon as possible. Don’t be delaying things, putting things off, because the world is changing around us.

You stressed the importance of personal relationships, that they are still a major part of the nonprofit world. Why, even in a digital era, does that persist?  The definition of philanthropy comes from the Greek for ‘the love of mankind.’ Philanthropy is all about people helping people. It’s not only the giving of money; it’s the volunteering of your time. When you touch someone’s heart, that’s so much more meaningful than clicking on their website.

What are the challenges to nonprofits as far as storytelling in the modern age?  You have to understand what your mission and work is. You have to figure out a way to convey it in language that’s understandable, that’s entertaining, that’s passionate. You can have all sorts of collateral material and come up with slogans that might come up with some meaning and awareness to your organization. But if I tell you the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bush and how they made their money, you will remember that more than you remember our mission to create innovative civic solutions helping people help themselves. Storytelling is ancient. We are wired as human beings to participate in this transmission between one another.

You said in your keynote presentation we should get rid of the evening galas. In a roomful of nonprofit leaders, that drew applause. Why do you feel that way? We only have so much energy. We only have so much human resources, and financial resources. Often, these galas are about a good time or a round of golf or catching fish—out here there’s probably a fishing tournament—but are people doing it for all of the right reasons? Are people really getting in touch with the mission and work of the organization, or is it about whether the shrimp were too small and the scallops were too hard? The vintage of wine and peoples’ dresses, all of that in an ideal world could maybe be put to better use. But we do need to find ways to connect as people. Our business is people to people. When in Sarasota, do like they do in Sarasota. But it is expensive. Other ways of connecting with people are difficult. They take some thought and planning and it’s not easy. If I can invite you to a wonderful place like the Francis and somebody else is going to take care of the details, you get on stage and make a little pitch. But is that the best we can do? No, we can do better. But I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime.

When you talk about the mission of the Edyth Bush Foundation, what do you mean by creating innovative civic solutions helping people help themselves?    Innovative is something new, something maybe untested and not proven. Civic is including all three sectors: private, government and nonprofit. Today, no one sector can accomplish what needs to get done by the whole community. Today’s event, along those lines, was fabulous. I don’t know across Florida whether there’s something quite like this, where a for-profit media publication is bringing people together, and people are paying for it. They are not just getting a free breakfast—they make an investment, you make an investment and I think in the long run it will benefit the community and probably is something that should be replicated. It’s obviously making sense to you and to an audience at capacity. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.