How to chart a path to successful philanthropy

How to chart a path to successful philanthropy

Expert opinion

While the journey from success to significance typically becomes most marked in the second half of life, each one of us wants to know that our life has mattered – that, in some way, we have made a meaningful contribution during our sojourn on the earth.

We can make a contribution on many different levels, depending on our unique circumstances, but each has value:

  • Personal - shaping the lives of the people closest to us
  • Local - supporting initiatives that contribute to our immediate communities
  • National - encouraging the possibilities we see for our country or region of the world
  • Global - affecting lives across the planet and the health of the planet itself

While some of us may have opportunities to effect change though our work and the businesses we run for the benefit of our employees and customers, philanthropy is available to all of us, whatever our status in life. But it can be extremely tough to know where to begin. 

I have experience of this from both sides of the fence: first, in several non-profit leadership roles, including fundraising for an educational project in Bosnia during the Balkans War; and, in recent years, as an advisor, helping wealthy families prepare for and enjoy their lives as philanthropists.

Philanthropy is real and challenging work, beautifully articulated by Andrew Carnegie who famously said “It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place.” Philanthropy can be very demanding – as well as ultimately rewarding – and asking the right questions at the outset is vital for anyone setting out on this path.

Here is my essential checklist to help you decide where and how to begin:  

  1. Identify an issue or cause about which you are passionate

We are more resilient and will stick with the cause through the inevitable ups and downs when we care deeply about it. Some of us may have been so preoccupied with dimensions of our lives – such as our work or children - that we literally don’t know what causes we’re passionate about. We need help to ask ourselves probing questions if we are to arrive at an answer. Or we may have so many competing interests we don’t know how to choose between them. A good opening question is: “Where do I feel most alive”? Any existing or initial philanthropic and volunteer experiences may help achieve some clarity.

  1. Get granular – it’s all about the detail

Many of us may have a big picture vision but need help to drill down to focus on the piece that is ours to address, without which we can become paralysed and do nothing. For example, there’s a groundswell of concern over environmental issues but, within the array of needs and opportunities we need to narrow down to choose our particular cause. Is it the deep oceans; the world’s forests; protecting biodiversity in a particular region; or something else entirely? Another good reflection question is: “What is the particular work that is mine to do”?

  1. Develop a theory of change

You need to educate yourself about what it means to be a smart donor by asking questions such as “What is the goal I want to achieve and what will it take to get there?” This requires a landscape analysis of the issue so you can arrive at your theory of change and decide where you want to position yourself. In this process, you’ll identify other funders and the gaps that are not being funded. What does your theory of change say about how you will fund?

For example, one of my clients knew she wanted to make a difference for people suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease, which her mother struggled with for many years, but our landscape analysis suggested there was no cure and giving good quality care to people with the disease, and supporting their caregivers, were two of the possible outcomes to aim for. But, digging deeper, we developed a theory of change that approaches each individual as a whole person and combines prevention and treatment. We found a researcher who shares this view and, remarkably, has developed a protocol not only to arrest but also to reverse cognitive decline.

  1. Take risks

Philanthropists are the frontrunners in some of the most challenging issues our society faces. Our resources are finite so there is an opportunity cost to how we allocate them and we don’t want to waste them. Yet there is also an opportunity cost if we stay within familiar parameters, which will not resolve the issue we care about. What change will you catalyse?  Know when to step outside the box and be a front runner.

For my client, finding a cure to Alzheimer’s became the ultimate definition of success. Thinking that ambitiously was exhilarating but entailed some risk. The drug companies engaged in research are not interested in the protocol because it could not easily be monetised so my client stepped up to fund the next level of research to prove the researcher’s concept. Its potential impact is immense and could change millions of lives.

  1. Leverage your financial commitment to the project

Our philanthropic impact can be enhanced many times over by the time, energy, and social connections we are prepared to commit. Decide how you will personally leverage your financial giving. Are you willing to put all your assets on the line? This takes us full circle – if you have identified a cause you are passionate about you will be more willing to put time, energy, and social connections on the line for it. If it’s not a top priority, you won’t.

Successful philanthropy is an iterative process, each step informing the next one. And it is not static. Some of us are identified with a particular cause throughout our lives while, for others, our focus evolves as we evolve. There is no right or wrong approach, just different realities for each of us.

It’s up to us to focus our giving to enhance positive impact in the areas we commit to, and then to reassess our theory of change as we measure the impact of our giving and how well we did. Being an educated donor means recognizing that we can improve and committing ourselves to learning, so we get progressively better. I trust you will see the positive impact of the gifts you give and so the philanthropic legacy you leave.