How to be a Strategic Philanthropist

by Bruce DeBoskey

This is the season when many people make charitable donations. This generosity is acutely needed and greatly appreciated. Next year, however, consider approaching your charitable giving as a strategic philanthropist, rather than as a donor.

The difference between a donor and a philanthropist does not depend on how much time or money one gives to charity, but, rather, on one’s approach to giving.

A donor reacts to needs and donates time and money, often to a wide spectrum of worthy and unrelated causes. A strategic philanthropist, however, engages in a thoughtful process of ascertaining and articulating clear philanthropic values and goals, develops a proactive strategy to achieve them, collaborates with others, makes a charitable investment, and evaluates the process to determine whether desired impacts and goals are being achieved. This process helps ensure that philanthropists will not only have a greater impact on the people, organizations, or causes they wish to benefit, but will derive more satisfaction from their charitable initiatives.

Recently, several excellent books on strategic philanthropy have been published offering insights into the journey from donor to philanthropist.

In Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results (2011), authors Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleishman state that “Whether you’re giving away your money or you are a steward of another’s money, your philanthropy is fundamentally about your values, your life, and your legacy.” Philanthropists, they suggest, should answer these questions:

  • What are my values and beliefs?
  • What is “success” and how can it be achieved?
  • What am I accountable for?
  • What will it take to get the job done?
  • How do I work with grantees?
  • Am I getting better?

In Giving 2.0: Transform Your Giving and our World (2011), author Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen asserts “to make the greatest impact, we must put our minds to work as well as our hearts. It is truly important to think beyond why and what you give to how you give. Turn your charity into strategic philanthropy. Turn reactive into proactive. By taking stock, equipping yourself with knowledge and experience, and thinking innovatively, you can make your giving an even more powerful force for good.” The book describes many ways philanthropists can increase their effectiveness.

Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World (2011), by Leslie Crutchfield, John Kania and Mark Kramer, advises that the first step of a philanthropic journey is to focus on a particular cause. “Donors who do pick a strategic focus are able to achieve more than donors who scatter their funding and attention across many disparate causes. … [B]y getting clear on what they aim to achieve, donors are suddenly able to see what they need to do – as well as what they need to stop doing.” The authors recommend that after selecting a cause, philanthropists should:

  • Advocate for change as part of the charitable initiative.
  • Tap into the power of business for achieving good.
  • Forge nonprofit peer networks to foster collaboration.
  • Include the beneficiaries of donations in developing strategies and assessing impact.
  • Employ an adaptive leadership mind-set to solve problems.
  • Continue learning about what’s working and what needs to be changed to advance the cause.

Two other worthwhile books on strategic philanthropy are The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan (2009), by Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon, and Inspired Philanthropy: Creating a Giving Plan and Leaving a Legacy (2007), by Tracy Gary.

If you want to have more impact on both the causes you care about and on yourself, your family or your business – make the effort to become a strategic philanthropist. You’ll achieve a better return on your social investments and experience more joy and meaning in your charitable efforts. Let’s make 2012 “The Year of the Strategic Philanthropist”!

Bruce DeBoskey, former ADL Regional Director of the Mountain States Region, is a Colorado-based philanthropic adviser. You can contact him at bruce@deboskeygroup.com.