Key lessons in strategic philanthropy

Nine years ago, I began working closely with families, family offices, businesses, and public and private foundations. My goal was (and is) to help them achieve greater impact for themselves and their communities through philanthropy.

In the years since, the field of strategic philanthropy has evolved significantly. In addition, I’ve learned valuable lessons about what works — and what doesn’t. Although truly strategic philanthropy is highly individualized, some lessons are universal.

Start now, give boldly, take risks

There is no better time to give than right now. Many people wait until their later years (or even until death) to start giving. Meanwhile, philanthropy could have been playing a meaningful role in their lives. Plus, the pressing issues for which philanthropy offers solutions can’t wait. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”

Despite common fears, people rarely donate so much to charity that they can no longer provide for themselves or their loved ones. Many people can afford to give boldly today.

Philanthropy is a form of “risk capital” that drives innovation. Governments and private investors often avoid risk – even though solutions to humanity’s most intractable challenges require risk and innovation. Philanthropy, dedicated to social rather than financial returns, may well be the final stronghold for true risk-taking.

Look through two lenses

When setting philanthropic goals, donors of all types and sizes should look through two lenses. The external lens asks, “What are we hoping to accomplish for our community, country or world?” The internal lens asks, “What am I hoping to achieve for my family, business or self by donating hard-earned money and precious time to charity?”

Both lenses are important. Donors who use both can “make a difference” while at the same time fully engaging family members or business stakeholders in meaningful communication about important values, priorities and goals.

In families, create a “safe zone” for philanthropy

Dedicate a “table” to the discussion of philanthropy and invite all members of the family to sit there as equals. This “safe zone” for effective communication can lead to more engagement, enhanced family dynamics and greater impact.

Because of unique life experiences, the perspective of rising generations often differs from that of the wealth-creating generations. Each can learn much from the other.

Go deep, not wide; use SDGs as roadmap

Too many donors adopt the “peanut butter” approach to giving — spreading charity thinly across a wide variety of causes and nonprofits. Donors and beneficiaries alike benefit when donors focus deeply on a few carefully selected causes. Use the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals as a roadmap for lasting and vital impact.

Support smaller nonprofits

Large “household name” nonprofits do great work; they are often well-funded and deeply endowed.  Since small “grass roots” organizations often struggle for resources, your gift to them can make a huge difference.

Major universities and colleges, for example, collectively have hundreds of billions of dollars in endowments. In contrast, many state and community colleges and technical schools struggle.

Funding higher education for people who are not at the top of academic or economic pyramids can dramatically change their lives – effectively addressing long-term issues like poverty, economic inequality, hunger and housing.  For more on this topic, see “Higher education philanthropy, more like soccer or basketball?”

Deploy capital holistically

To meaningfully repair the world, deploy capital holistically. Support political candidates who share your view of society’s problems and solutions, engage in impact investing where your investments produce a double bottom line of profit and positive social impact, and make grants that are strategic. Use all of the tools on your capital workbench.

View philanthropy as a partnership

Rather than taking a “we’re here to solve your problems” approach, consider philanthropy as a partnership – a collaboration among communities of people with different assets, characteristics, needs and strengths. Such communities often view their circumstances very differently than donors. Usually, they have great insights into strategies and solutions. A partnership approach diminishes power dynamics and enhances outcomes.

Philanthropy is a powerful tool to repair the world, while also helping donors find more purpose in their lives and businesses. It is inherently optimistic, reflecting the deeply held belief that we can have a positive impact on stubborn societal issues and the lives of others. Through philanthropy, individuals and organizations can make a difference, promote change and improve their communities.


Nonprofit of the Month

Every Child Pediatrics provides comprehensive, affordable health care to nearly 24,000 Colorado children annually, regardless of insurance or ability to pay. Since 1996, this nonprofit has been driven by the belief that all children, no matter their circumstances, deserve quality health care and the opportunity to reach their full potential. Its unique model includes primary medical care, behavioral health counseling, dental care, nutrition guidance, social services and healthy living programs.