This was the It Could Happen to You episode of Oprah’s The Big Give!

I suspect, most viewers thought it’d be incredibly easy to give away $100,000 in 24 hours, even with the quirky restrictions. But it’s not as easy as it seems!

First I want to highlight a couple lessons donors can learn from this episode. Then I’ll comment on some of the ways people gave their money away.

As I see it, one of the main lessons of this episode is the need for philanthropic advisors. The only person to give all the money away was Stephen. His dad acted like a philanthropic advisor, making him aware of an impoverished neighborhood in the area.

In a perfect world, there would be more research done too. What’s the use in getting an oven if you don’t have the wiring to handle it? Or in getting a huge HDTV if your neighborhood has a high crime rate?

I don’t mean to take away from Stephen’s creativity and achievement. The rules were strict. I do find it interesting that the only person to succeed with the task had an “advisor.”

Another big lesson from Sunday’s episode concerns Eric’s experience. He promised to pay the funeral costs of a family in mourning. But because of restrictions, he needed as many family members to be present as possible. Not enough were there at the wake so he promised to come to the funeral the next day.

He simply didn’t show up.

Can you imagine how awful that was to the family? Not only are they in mourning. But now their emotions are getting jerked around by a do-gooder that doesn’t follow through. (Fortunately, the notes on the Big Give’s message boards say Oprah gave $20,000 to the family on her show Monday. But still…)

So here’s the second lesson for funders: in the words of a great Irving Berlin / Bing Crosby song, be careful, it’s my heart.

No charity is “entitled” to a donor’s money. Ever.

But donors that promise a gift set up very real expectations in the minds and lives of nonprofits. To not follow through can be quite traumatic, causing the nonprofit to lose focus on it’s mission while it scrambles to make up for funding it was supposed to have received.

If circumstances change, communication is key. Things change all the time. If a donor needs to shift giving priorities, that’s his perogative. But it’d be thoughtful to at least let the charity know. Or better yet, to let them know that funding will be tapering out over the next couple years. Advanced warning can be extremely helpful.

Why didn’t Eric get a phone number to contact? At the very least, he could’ve called to say he was running late, get the count of family members, and arrange to leave the cash at some point later that afternoon.

Now some highlights from the other contestants:

  • I loved Cameron’s taking the encourage the kid at the Midas to do good to others. What an amazing teachable moment. One missed by people like Kim and Rachael. They bought people stuff but didn’t appear to leave the people with any encouragement to “pay it forward.” In doing this, Cameron made his gift move from a mere transfer of cash to an enduring character lesson in the life of at least one child. Good for you, Cameron!
  • Kim had a really hard time. But I loved the “it ain’t over ’til it’s over” lesson from her experience. I had a flashback to every capital campaign I’ve done. We always hit the wall and don’t think we can go on. But something inevitably happens to give us a second wind. It’s a great reminder for us to not give up to quickly.
  • Brandi’s giving the bus tokens seemed to come right out of It Could Happen to You! What a great gift for those women.

    And it was inspiring seeing how much joy Brandi got from giving away $2,000 worth of flowers. And how happy she made people! I also loved that she pulled at least one other person in to the joy, getting him to help her.

  • Rachael’s giving to the cystic fibrosis function was just shameless. She obnoxiously swoops in to what was clearly a huge event for them, makes a splashy donation, and sweeps out. This happens far too often in real life but it’s still painful to see.

This post is runnnig long so I’ll stop.

But remember: If you’re looking to give away lots of cash, get an advisor, someone that knows the lay of the land. And be careful with the expectations you set up!

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