There Is An “I” In Philanthropy

There is no "I" in team.
There is no "I" in team.

In the recent Olympic men’s basketball final post-game interviews, LeBron and Kobe and Durant each took pains – actually, it came very naturally – not to say “I made a difference.”  Instead they suggested that thanks to their teammates’ skills and effort, they’d each been able to contribute to the win.  They were happy to take credit for their contribution, but even that was evident more in their pleased countenance than their words.

“There is no ‘I’ in team,” say sports coaches to their charges at all levels, and all-stars play their game and talk about it afterwards as if they believe it.

Contrast this with philanthropy, where each prospective donor is encouraged to feel that yes, indeed, “I can make a difference.”

What if instead we were encouraged to believe that thanks to the skills and efforts of our various partners joined in an effort to move the needle with a challenging social problem, we could each contribute to the win, and together take credit for our the effects of our contributions.

Am I saying donors shouldn’t want individual recognition?  No, but challenging social problems need team effort to help win the day.   Challenging social problems need a variety of skilled and hard-working partners pulling together to focus the just-right pressure in the just-right places, drawing on the just-right resources.  There are multiple roles on such a team and credit could go to each playing its role effectively.

Am I saying individual contributions don’t count?  No, it’s clear that individual contributions certainly do count, but they count in the context of the team’s overall performance, which transcends individual performance.

Am I saying that as an individual I can’t make a difference?  No, but as with professional sports, a little generosity on the ego front allows each to rise above our individual game and make a difference that counts in the overall effort.

Am I adding this to the list of dysfunctions in philanthropy? Maybe.  Even pro basketball players must have to remind themselves that team work transcends individual work.  It would be easy to crow – their talents and gifts are so immense — but it would so go against the culture their coaches have inculcated in them.

Just sayin’…


Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / August 14, 2012

Lightly edited July 7, 2020

Original date: August 14, 2012