Lisa Greer’s Message to Philanthropy: Revolutionize

By Daniel Heimpel   |   February 3, 2022
Lisa Greer

While she had built a successful career, Lisa Greer wasn’t born into wealth. But when her husband Josh’s company, RealD, IPOed in 2010, she was instantaneously vaulted into the 1%. 

With the money came an opportunity for Greer to give back, and in seven figure increments. But like others whose lives are transformed by a “wealth event” of the magnitude she experienced, giving to worthwhile nonprofits brought a whole new world to navigate, and, of course, an onslaught of fundraisers.

In her first book, Philanthropy Revolution, the Southern California native offers donors and nonprofit professionals an unfiltered window into the world of fundraising, and her quest to change the game, all infused with vibrant urgency.

“There’s more cash in the system today than any time in U.S. history,” Greer says. “Banks have over $2 trillion since COVID began, and much of the U.S. population has more free cash available than ever before. 

“Nonprofits need to recognize that if ever there was a time that someone will ‘dip their toe in the water’ and think about giving to nonprofits, it’s now. Connecting with and activating those new donors is critical, and we need to do it by engaging those prospective donors in an authentic, respectful, honest manner – not by using the arcane and off-putting methods used today.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Greer. Whether you are a donor, fundraiser or otherwise in the social sector’s swirl, this book is a must-read. Below is a taste from our conversation: 

Q. In Philanthropy Revolution you spend a lot of time talking about how fundraisers can and must build authentic relationships with donors. What is your advice to fundraisers who are trying to cultivate high-capacity donors like yourself? 

A. During that first encounter, or even the second encounter, there can’t be anything that makes a donor feel like they’re an ATM or piggy bank.  

A nervous fundraiser is not an appealing fundraiser. I like to believe that most fundraisers are in the game because they love the mission. But a lot of fundraisers think that they need to be subservient to the donors. They also sometimes feel like they’re a different makeup of a human than a donor. 

So, they don’t think they should say anything about themselves. And I think that’s a big, big, big mistake. But I, as a donor, want to know why a fundraiser is at an organization. If we are first meeting, I want to know what appeals to them about the organization. Why did they decide that this is a place where they want to spend all their time and energy? 

And it has been really shocking to me that almost every fundraiser I’ve talked to about this thinks I’m speaking another language. They’re like, ‘no, no, no, the donors don’t care about me.’ And I’m like, ‘yes, yes, yes, they do.’ They want to know that you’re a human being. And they want an authentic relationship, which is a very hard proposition if one person thinks that the other isn’t from the same species. 

Fundraisers are under enormous pressure to hit fundraising goals and you argue that they are missing an opportunity to make those authentic relationships. What is the role of the board and nonprofit leadership in making such a change?

They need to realize that the methodology they’ve been using is arcane, that there are pieces of it that you can save, but that a lot of the ways that this is done were created a hundred years ago. And when you look at it like that, I can’t think of anyone who would say that’s a good idea. 

If you’re a fundraiser who is beholden to a board that is stuck in the dark ages, it’s really, really hard. But that’s why I think my book has been successful because any fundraiser on the staff side can go to their board and say, this is somebody who’s given seven figure gifts, and this is what they think, let’s give it a try.

You are very focused on engaging the next generation of donors. What are some straightforward ways nonprofits can engage millennials?

A lot of these people have real money at 20 years old. That was not a thing before. That’s new. There were 618,000 millennial millionaires in the United States, as of two years ago. I’m guessing there’s about 700 to 750,000 in the U.S. today. 

The first thing that an organization should do is put a millennial with resources on your board. Get a freaking millennial on your board because you will learn from them. And if you get two, you get extra points. 

There is colossal wealth accumulated in Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs). Why are they good, bad and what do nonprofits need to know? 

We need to accept that DAFs are here to stay. There’s something about it that freaks people out, and they just can’t get their head around it, the same way they can’t get their head around a 25-year-old with lots of money. Their brains just turn off. 

In the last year, Fidelity opened no-minimum DAFs, so you can open a DAF with $25. Every nonprofit should give all their staff $25 to open a DAF so they can make a $20 donation and see how the process works.

I have a DAF, in part, because it makes it really easy to give money. I can be sitting across from a fundraiser and pick up my phone while I’m talking to them. I say, ‘Okay, I decided, I’m going to give you a thousand dollars.’ 

And I immediately get a confirmation that I’ve requested that money and I immediately send it to them. So, they can leave that table and know that they’ve just got information that I’ve requested that money, and they can follow that through, and they love it.

You have gone as far to write a book. You speak and continue to write prolifically about what you perceive as a tenuous moment in the sustainability of worthwhile nonprofits. What are you hoping to achieve? 

Have I told you about my vision of the ship?

There’s this wealthy guy in L.A. who passed away and we were told by one of the nonprofits he gave to that his gifts were 60% of their annual revenue. And I thought, ‘So what if somebody else who’s responsible for 50%, 60% of an organization dies?’ Then, all of a sudden, I have in my head a weird vision. I can see the org chart of the top wealthy guys with their money going into, ultimately, let’s say a thousand different nonprofits. 

And that if one or two more of those guys go, then all those little guys at the bottom, they’re just going to not have a check, and they’re going to be done. They’re just going to disappear, and they won’t know what hit them. And I can’t allow that.

What I see is us inching closer. I feel like I’m on a ship; there’s an iceberg in front of me and we are inching closer to the iceberg, and I just need to turn the thing to avoid disaster. I don’t need to turn it around. I just want it to not hit the iceberg.  

Daniel Heimpel is an award winning journalist, journalism educator and nonprofit leader. Heimpel is vice president at the Montecito Journal Media Group where he serves as executive editor of The Giving List, a magazine and website that connects effective nonprofit organizations with high-capacity donors.