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What charities can learn from the staggering philanthropic response to Notre Dame

What charities can learn from the staggering philanthropic response to Notre Dame

Following the devastating fire at France’s beloved , the cathedral raised a staggering $1 billion in just 72 hours to fund its restoration. And as the embers still smoulder, the debate of the scale of international giving rages on.

Alongside these personal and corporate donations has been a wave of public criticism – calling out the disproportionate philanthropic response to tragedies like Grenfell Tower in comparison, and the clear business-related motivations that shine through several commitments. People are asking: where were these billionaires when we needed them before, and why are they funding the restoration of a building instead of causes where people’s lives and rights are at stake?

There is an enormous amount of validity to these opinions and it’s great to see people holding philanthropy accountable. We need resources like this mobilised for so many causes; and from a fundraising perspective Notre Dame offers fascinating insight into the psychology of giving every charity can learn from:

1. People give quickly when there’s an emotional connection

To understand the response to Notre Dame it’s important to consider the difference between ‘philanthropy’ and ‘charity’. Philanthropy is about proactively moving the needle on a social issue or system, so it tends to be planned and happen on a slower timeline. Charity is a lot more reactive and emotionally driven – people feel a personal connection to something, giving is the obvious way to help, and they react quickly as a result. Notre Dame represents much more than a landmark; it’s a monument closely interwoven with French identity and pride that people watched burn live across the world. These emotions created the perfect alchemy for fundraising success.



2. Time-bound campaigns are an incredibly compelling proposition

Macron announcing his commitment to rebuild Notre Dame in five years articulates a definition of success that is short-term and tangible – donors will be able to quickly see the impact of their gifts and the risk of long-term over-reliance from the charity is eliminated. Of course, capital projects lend themselves nicely to a timeframe, but even charities working toward the most complex problems like climate change should breakdown their theories of change into tangible milestones donors can feel incentivised and inspired by.


3. Giving is rarely purely altruistic

Whether it’s to boost a company’s positioning against competitors, increase a bottom line or repair an individual’s reputation after a media scandal – there are always ‘fringe’ benefits from charitable giving. In the case of Notre Dame, the French billionaire Bernard Arnault and his luxury goods group LVMH (think: Louis Vuitton, Dior, Dom Perignon and TAG Heuer) promised on Tuesday to donate €200m (£170m), just hours after his longstanding rival François Pinault, the fashion and retail magnate, announced he was giving €100m. There is a clear competitive edge to these donations, but the truth is: if people see their giving having an impact – not just on a cause, but also on other elements of their personal and professional lives – they tend to do a lot more of it (€200m more, to be exact). Don’t shy away from this and ensure you factor these shared-value approaches into your fundraising strategy.

For better or worse, Notre Dame and other comparable monuments have always been in a philanthropic league of their own, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But the donor behaviour from Notre Dame can be analysed and used by charities across the world to mobilise resources to other causes, too.


Rachel Stephenson Sheff works at Lightful – a full-service creative technology company for social good organisations.




Rachel Stephenson Sheff works at I.G. Advisors, a London-based strategy and management consultancy in the social impact space. She is the producer of What Donors Want (aka I.G.’s Roz from Frasier). Get in touch if you want learn more.

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