Tinder for the tender-hearted: When transactions become relationships

What Matters

Good philanthropy thrives on relationships. We lament “mere transactions” and nod approvingly that relationships are what is needed. 

We rightfully criticize transactional systems and attitudes. Still, many grantmakers focus on standardized top-down impact or outcome measures that count transactions instead of building equitable and ongoing dialogue with beneficiaries. Under pressure to raise dollars, fundraisers tend to bombard prospective donors with generic messages to “give now” instead of taking the time to cultivate the particular kind of joy in giving that each of us experiences differently.

With the inequities that COVID has exposed, we see a re-emergence of more participatory, community-focused, and trust-based approaches to philanthropy. Ironically, this is happening simultaneously as so much work migrates online, where the currency of the realm relies on its capacity to generate, count, and analyze vast amounts of transactions. 

Long-term, meaningful relationships are qualitatively different than fleeting transactions. Yet deep relationships begin with and are sustained by transactions. We should spend less time affirming the tension of relationships and transactions and pay more attention to how transactions can build and maintain relationships. And yes, how they can damage relationships as well.

There is perhaps no better example of transactional philanthropy than crowdfunding. In his Ethicist column, Kwame Anthony Appiah criticizes online crowdfunding campaigns for medical expenses because they favor the more photogenic above those with greater need.

They reveal a society that provides inadequate health insurance, making crowdfunding necessary for many with urgent medical expenses. He also points to research that suggests that the more privileged in society have better success on such platforms than people of color with fewer resources. 

To capture the combination of the emotional pull of appeals and the ease with which one can execute a donation, he coins the catchy phrase “Tinder for the tender-hearted.” It is a combination of intense feeling at a distance, combined with a “frictionless” ability to conduct an online transaction in response.

Appiah finds the process demeaning. And yet this mode of communicating and interacting is ever more pervasive in so many realms where relationships used to require gathering in common physical spaces.

Staying connected during COVID-19

The availability of online platforms enabled the more fortunate among us to move work and life online during the pandemic. Interestingly, this may also come with potential benefits that may outlast the difficulties of the pandemic.

Writing about research on online digital dating apps that have allowed elements of relationship-building to continue despite social distancing, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy faculty member Dr. Sara Konrath concludes: “Although COVID-19 has slowed down the physical-intimacy stages of relationships, and allowed people to get to know each other more, it may have accelerated the timeline to commitment.” 

This is not unlike what we are learning about learning with the spread of online instruction during the pandemic. As we disaggregate how learners engage information through video, audio, and online interaction, we take apart processes that used to be bundled together in physical classrooms and campuses.

We learn what works better online and what we truly miss about the in-person experience, and how they relate to each other. If learning is comprised of multiple complex relationships, we are coming to know more about the specific effects of the many transactions that make up a learning relationship.

From iconic teacher-student relationships like that of Socrates and Plato, we know the importance of the human connections among teachers and students, which until recently required sharing a physical space. But as we have moved online, even before the pandemic, we started breaking down these vital learning relationships into their component transactional parts.

We are learning more about how to stage and engage online classrooms so that the series of transactions that would be fleeting on their own add up to a valuable learning experience, occasionally improving outcomes along the way.

The importance of community

With the availability of online knowledge and online engagement, I have come to appreciate even more the importance of community in the processes of learning and discovery. There is something about being present with others with whom one shares ideas that make them more engaging because they are embodied in others, bringing together familiarity, presence, and physical encouragement.

Some of this we may not be able to replicate fully online. But it is too soon to declare we know the limits of online learning and which transactions build on each other and which might detract from generating meaningful relationships. After all, one prominent community of learning and discovery has thrived purely online.

Wikipedia, still redolent of the idealistic founding days of an internet that belonged to everyone and no one, demonstrates that an alternative to the voracious commercial giants of transactional efficiency and emotional appeal can survive and thrive.

At its best, philanthropy is a learning process that can be an expression of one’s dignity as a carrier of generosity and a worthy receiver, not unlike a student.

Building meaningful relationships

Relationships are made of a series of transactions. Swiping left or right to like, donate, or even send a canned comment may not take much conscious engagement, but we always have the opportunity to reflect on what we are doing when we are in reactive mode.

Even if the fast-thinking reactions that we typically deploy in transactional mode may not neatly accumulate into the more slow-thinking deliberation we engage in during relationships, we can rely on the latter to reflect on the former.

We have seen the quick response of social media to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others lead to larger, more meaningful movements as the nation stirs and aspires to a more just society. Posts can become progress as information spreads and unites.

It is unlikely that we will soon develop a general formula that shows how relationships arise from transactions. Still, it is undeniable that transactions can lead to meaningful connections.

I encourage you to reflect on the totality of your transactions, those that have built meaningful relationships and those that have not. Remember those chance encounters that led to other transactions that eventually became transformative relationships. Some transactions are just meant to conduct an exchange and no one expects anything else. And many transactions that probe for relationships will fail.

Virtuosos of relationship-building are adept at using transactions to build relationships. And as robots and algorithms succeed in replicating some of the attachments we build in relationships, remember that we all retain the power to decide if and when we want transactions to develop into relationships.

Best regards,

Dean Amir Pasic

Amir Pasic
Eugene R. Tempel Dean

Faculty book award

Tyrone Freeman: Madam Walker's Gospel of Giving

One of our faculty members has been honored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) with highly regarded and coveted awards. Professor Tyrone Freeman’s book, Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow, won the Skystone Partners Prize for Research on Fundraising and Philanthropy.

See the AFP announcement