10/15/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Yin and Yang of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Fundraising

The New York Times op-ed by Peter Buffett entitled "The Charitable-Industrial Complex" created a stir in the nonprofit sector. Many claimed, "It's easy for him to say. He's Warren Buffett's son." I disagree. It wasn't easy for him to say. And he's right.

1. He is right when he says that it is hard to give and not create unintended consequences.

Buffet offered the harsh example of "distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area, which ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex."

Anyone involved with philanthropy has seen innumerable examples of unintended consequences. My friend, the late Congressman Peter Rodino, Jr. of New Jersey, told me that the proudest moment of his career was when the first low-income public housing project in the country was built in his district. Later, it became his saddest moment when he watched the project turn into a drug haven for heroin addicts. The last time I heard him speak of this disappointment he was almost 95 years old, and it still hurt him to talk about it.

2. Peter Buffett is correct when he says you can't "give" solutions.

Buffett describes it as Philanthropic Colonialism, saying,

I noticed that a donor had the urge to 'save the day' in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem.

We can't give information or money to people and think we've solved their problems. Before someone can come to an understanding (get an "ah hah") first they have to engage in looking for an answer. We can only help people when they are actively exerting effort to help themselves.

As a volunteer I've been working in the nonprofit sector most of my life. Again and again I have witnessed how easy it is to think, "I have the solution," and then screw it up. Or, perhaps worse, miss a big opportunity to actually make a difference, just because I didn't listen to the people I was trying to help.

In one case, I went to Hawaii to work on a nonprofit fundraising project. Because I had come from the "mainland" some of the locals let me get away with thinking that I knew something that they did not. By accident, I learned that I was wrong. Very wrong. In three minutes this video explains how I almost missed the opportunity but "by accident" raised $250,000.

As the video story illustrates, it's easier to find solutions in a partnership. Just as yin and yang can be thought of as complementary (instead of opposing) forces, and everything has both yin and yang aspects (for instance shadow cannot exist without light and there's no day without night) giving and receiving are two parts of one whole. Harmony is vital nourishment for human beings. Both the giver and the receiver are essential in creating it.

3. I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Buffett that "What we have is a crisis of imagination."

In an interview for the Idealist in the Huffington Post, Peter Buffett says, "I try to keep the conversation open-ended and towards what's better, instead of what's broken... "

I have seen solution after solution emerge after asking people in nonprofits just one question: If you could get exactly what you want, what do you want? This requires them to use their imaginations. (Instead of asking, "What are your problems?"-- which leads them down the path that Einstein referred to when he said you cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.)

The March of Dimes brought about a cure for polio. I think their success had something to do with the name. Their name declared what they wanted: Money. It helped them imagine money marching in. It did not mention what they didn't want: Polio.

The official names of many nonprofits describe what they don't want. "The Hunger Project," for instance. Instead of using the word hunger and repeating it over and over again, they might create better results with a name that implies an abundance of food, e.g. "The Cornucopia Project."

4. Buffett was criticized liberally for calling charity 'conscience laundering' for the rich. On this, I disagree with him. The desire to make a difference is inherent in human nature: rich, poor and middle income. Financial independence provides a lot of power to do good. How people use their power is as varied as the power of electricity which can be used to light up a city or electrocute a bug.

Whatever you think of Buffett's theories, at least he's engaged in looking for solutions. He's not patting himself on the back. He's willing to look at both the yin and the yang of philanthropy.

I admire that Buffett doesn't profess to have the answers, but is willing to attempt getting to the truth. Those who deny that there is truth in his op-ed may be doing so because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. A huge number of nonprofits are dormant. Others squeak by. Some are shams. For those of us who care about the nonprofit sector, can we excuse the hard issues because we prefer not to be involved or because we think it isn't "that bad?"

After all, if we acknowledge a thing to be wrong, we must deal with the next question: What are we going to do about it?