The Giving Game: Surviving Philanthropy's Schemers Dreamers & Volunteer Vixens - Come Hell or High Heels

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Excerpted from The Giving Game: Surviving Philanthropy's Schemers Dreamers & Volunteer Vixens - Come Hell or High Heels, by Merri Lee Marks.

“In doing good, there’s always a lot of self-involvement.”
—Trent Stamp, Charity Navigator

I've been involved in philanthropy for nearly thirty years and I’ve seen and done it all: celebrity-studded red carpet events to grassroots community arts fundraisers; white glove garden club soirees to PTA-type fundraisers. Though the dollar amounts and locales may vary, there is one common denominator that is found in almost every fundraising endeavor:
a group of volunteer women, a.k.a “the committee,” who work behind the scenes to bring the event to fruition.  Depending on the motivations of these women and the vagaries of the group dynamic, this committee can either be the lifeblood of an organization—bringing in much needed money, visibility and fresh ideas—or the death knell of it.

You get a group of committed women together to unite to further a mission, there’s nothing they can’t do. Lives end up changing for the better. On the other hand, if the women happen to be simply a group of joiners who refuse to set aside petty differences and secret agendas and have joined simply to further their own selfish goals, well, the result can be a difficult and rocky road. Lives may change alright, but not always for the better! Unfortunately, what I was beginning to discover was it’s sometimes difficult to see which type of group you’ve become a part of until it’s too late. Naively I allowed my desire to make a difference to lead me straight into the lion’s den. I didn’t know the rules of the Giving Game.

Worst of all was the realization that, despite so many advances in equality women have achieved over the past half century, some still found it necessary, even in this supposedly benevolent arena, to resort to competitive tactics and cutthroat behavior all for the sake of pathetic social gain. So much for sisterhood! 

Because I didn’t want to give up volunteering and being involved in causes I believed in, I decided to see if I could break the code of the charity volunteer and find a way to play the game so that everyone wins.

I wrote The Giving Game: Surviving Philanthropy's Schemers Dreamers & Volunteer Vixens - Come Hell or High Heels to help dispel the frustration and anger that philanthropic teamwork (and most forms of tearmwork!) generates. To acknowledge publicly the hypocrisy of the few individuals that poison the well of what should be a strictly altruistic pursuit. To rise above the frey and stay focused on helping the cause, here are my tips for volunteering:

1. Analyze your motivation and be honest with yourself: are you there just to help, or to be social? Or both? There’s no “right” or “wrong” answer, but being honest about why you’re there will help you set your priorities. For instance, if your main reason for being there is social, and you don’t seem to mesh with the women involved, it may be wise to bow out and choose another organization to join where you feel more at home. Or, if you’re passionate about the mission of the charity but less so about the group of volunteers involved with it, you may choose to overlook the more social aspects and stay above the fray and instead find ways to get more directly involved.

2. Make sure you believe in the cause. Understand its mission statement and purpose for being there, who it’s helping. Remember to remind yourself!

3. Don’t jump off a cliff your first time out. Do not try to run the committee if you are a newbie. Join a couple of committees doing minor jobs, while checking out the attitudes and behaviors of other members for future references.

4. Before you do dive in, take the temperature of the group and its dynamics. Is it overly formal or exclusionary; a rigid hierarchy difficult to penetrate; or a more loosely defined group? Which dynamic works best for you? If you’re more of a free spirit it wouldn’t make sense for you to join a rigid, formal blue-blood organization—chances are you’d be frustrated and a fish out of water every step of the way.

5. If you want to be a part of a committee, there are ways to stem some of the uglier aspects of it. Thus, the Committee Survival Guide:
• Try to be on task on your own or execute a portion of your project on your own without having to interface with a committee.

• Do not work on long-term projects. Be involved in events that take maximum six months. The two-year planning processes of a large complicated event/gala can put you in long-term hell if the co-chair relationship goes south early on. Long-term projects as a category are the most volatile of all the situations because they can end without notice. Before you know it, you have no clue of what’s going on and everyone knows it but you, until the damage is done!

• Assess your potential co-chair: What is her personality like? What is her reputation regarding working with other humans? Do you feel her style can mesh with yours?

• Try to completely comprehend what your job is before you accept. Confirm with your Co-Chair to make sure you both really understand your obligations and how you are going to divide them. Go as far as to write it down and email it back and forth until you have both agreed.

• Sit down with your potential co-chair and lay out the job and your potential resources. Are you a good pair on this level?? Have either of you done this job before? It is always more stressful with two newbies at the helm. Pairing yourself with a co-chair of experience and knowledge is always your best scenario. Look for a cochair who is slightly ahead of you on the volunteer path.


6. Take the time to do a friendship assessment. Ask yourself a few questions before committing yourself to a year-long commitment with someone you’re not sure has your back. For instance, a potential frenemy can be exposed with a few easy questions: Do you look forward to seeing this person, or do you consider it a chore? Is she truly happy to see you, or do you suspect she wants something from you or needs to lord something over you? Will you walk away from this meeting feeling good—or feeling manipulated, demeaned, poisoned, or played?

7. Know the Bully Code! Put-downs also come in the form of:

• Cutting off communication (ignoring, not returning phone calls, emails or texts);
• Information hoarding (she “forgets” to inform you of an important meeting or change in plans);
• Rude comments that mask feelings the attacker is afraid to own (“After the meeting yesterday, everyone was saying how unprepared you sounded.”);
• Rumor spreading (which often includes outright lies, so be prepared);
• Befriending your best friend, then doing everything she can to turn her against you (the ever popular “Divide and Conquer”).

8. Remember: This is not high school or sorority rush—you will not become BFFs with everyone immediately or ever!

And, most of all, remember: if you get fed up with the women involved with the charity, you can quit the women’s group without quitting being involved with the charity.

Merri Lee Marks is the author of  The Giving Game: Surviving Philanthropy's Schemers, Dreamers and Volunteer Vixens - Come Hell or High Heels. Marks is the first to expose the existence of bullying and incivility in the philanthropic realm - a setting which, for all its seeming benevolence, is ironically not exempt from such inappropriate, demoralizing behavior.  She is an expert in philanthropy and a contributor on the expert website When she isn't volunteering, you can find Merri Lee in a garden for her landscape design company. She resides with her son Zachary  in Brentwood, California.


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