Social Good: 15 Ideas for More Effective Philanthropy

ONE Tweet (or email) “thank you” to a grantee.

Too often, we assume that others know we appreciate their great work. That is why, perhaps, so many good deeds go un-thanked. Grantees are often the ones on the ground, doing most (if not all) of the heaviest lifting. As a show of your appreciation this holiday season, tweet a public thank-you note to one of your grantees. (And yes, if you don’t use Twitter, you can write an email instead). We are sure that the grantee will appreciate it.

For more on how to bolster your relationships with your grantees, read our new publication, The Donor-Grantee Trap.

Day 1: Double a grant to an exceptional grantee (without being asked).

Donors often wonder whether their grantees can do more with less. But how about giving your best-performing grantees a chance to do more with more? Could doubling their grant result in more than twice the benefit?

It’s worth finding out today.

3Recommend a great grantee to another funder.

The number-one reason people give is because they were asked. If one of your grantees is getting terrific results, help spread the word to someone who might be making their first donation this season.

Five Traits of Adaptive Philanthropists

Achieving success in philanthropy is never easy, and today's uncertain and constantly changing world makes doing so exponentially more difficult. It's clear that in a such a world, philanthropists cannot hold to a rigid mindset of what used to work; instead, they must embrace a flexible, more responsive approach. One such approach is adaptive philanthropy, which Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner and co-leader of the philanthropy practice at the Bridgespan Group, discussed in a 2011 series on the subject. An adaptive philanthropy strategy, she wrote, is marked by "a clear but flexible definition of success, clear criteria for what kinds of opportunities are in and out, nimble decision-making, an openness to new ideas, and a passionate commitment to continuous improvement."

As part of a new Bridgespan-SSIR series on adaptive philanthropy, Ditkoff further expounds on the subject and lays out five traits that Bridgespan believes exemplify this exciting new approach, and thus, its leaders:

1. Adaptive philanthropists have a clear, but flexible, definition of success.

Adaptive philanthropists have clear but flexible boundaries, as well as a definition of what success looks like, for whom, and over what timeframe. This includes taking stock of what you really care about, all of the assets at your disposal (expertise, relationships, voice), what your stakeholders say that you or your staff are really good at, and what you need to learn.

How do we measure success? Darren Walker attests to the difficulty of measuring social change

Also see: Defining “success”: Debi Brooks and Michael J. Fox measure progress in fighting Parkinson’s

2. Adaptive philanthropists have defined their philanthropic anchors, by which they are better able to judge new opportunities.

Adaptive philanthropy defines the anchors of a funder’s strategy—what shouldn’t change in changing times—and boundaries within which investments can move to catch currents. By what criteria will you judge new opportunities that pop up and determine whether you should seize them?

Related: Know where you want to go: For the Buffetts, a clear strategy is essential

Also see: Resource allocation decisions: Risa Lavizzo-Mourey says these are some of the most difficult decisions she makes

3. Adaptive philanthropists are attuned to evidence.

Within what they care about, adaptive leaders understand deeply what evidence says about what does and doesn’t work, what’s known and unknown. This includes gold-standard evaluation evidence, where available, as well as the voices of beneficiaries or others whose mindset and behaviors funders are trying to influence.

Related: Two sides of performance measurement: Nancy Roob and EMCF measure their own performance in addition to that of its grantees

Also see: To measure philanthropic impact, Steve Hilton says you have to ‘go a few layers down’

4. Adaptive philanthropists take thoughtful risks.

If such leaders are investing in an area where much is unknown, they have a clear learning agenda and plan to experiment so that they can come down the learning curve as quickly as possible. Such a plan will define assumptions to test and important external factors that will require strategy adjustment.

Related: Risk tolerance: Laura and John Arnold are open to failure in their philanthropy

Also see: Steve McCormick tells new philanthropists to experiment

5. Adaptive philanthropists embrace risk and uncertainty, and an iterative approach to course-correction.

With clear boundaries and a goal informed by evidence, adaptive philanthropy does not assume a rigid, paint-by-numbers process to achieve that success. It requires increased comfort with risk and uncertainty. It requires rapid prototyping of ideas, with rapid feedback loops from important stakeholders—not once a year, but monthly—and offers philanthropists outside perspective on their thinking. It requires rapid decision-making, shorter cycle times on budgets and paperwork, capital that the funder can allocate flexibly to emerging opportunities throughout the year.

Related: Effective evaluation: Emmett Carson on the need for real-time information

Also see: How to define success in philanthropy: Steve Hilton warns about over-reliance on metrics

Text after each orange subhead is excerpted from "Giving That Gets Results: An Introduction." Full text is here.

Exploring Adaptive Philanthropy That Gets Results

Susan Wolf DitkoffSusan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner and co-leader of the philanthropy practice at the Bridgespan Group, will moderate a webinar aimed at philanthropists who are interested in hearing from their peers on how to adapt philanthropic strategy in today's ever-changing world. (You can register here.)

Effective philanthropy requires adapting to changing circumstances. Yet, most philanthropists do not approach philanthropy in this way, writes Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner and co-leader of the philanthropy practice at the Bridgespan Group, in her introduction to Giving that Gets Results, a Stanford Social Innovation Review–Bridgespan eight-week series of new blogs, videos and webinars. Instead, she says, all too many philanthropists "either stick to the old model—a rigid plan that they desperately try to follow despite the fact that it won’t work anymore—or they find themselves lurching from grant to grant, slipping back into old, opportunistic habits and making a disconnected set of grants that don’t add up to anything."

Rather than approaching philanthropy with rigid multi-year plans that take years to evaluate and months to refresh, philanthropists who approach their giving with an adaptive mindset rely more on decision trees and scenario analysis, she says. Such philanthropists are sensitive to the external environment, watchful of changing circumstances that they then respond to with thoughtful, yet highly responsive, adjustments.

To sharpen your own adaptive philanthropy skills, join Ditkoff and presenters Steve McCormick, Jenny Shilling Stein, and Jeff Walker—who each take distinct yet complementary approaches to philanthropy—for Thursday's complimentary webinar "Adaptive Philanthropy: Getting Results in Uncertain Environments," and then follow along as SSIR and Bridgespan present a series of blogs, videos, and webinars that explore adaptive philanthropy, and other new and important approaches to philanthropy.

Related: Does Your Philanthropy Have an Adaptive Strategy?

How Four Philanthropists Are Innovating Medical Research

Medical-Philanthropists_198x134.jpg"I've known for years that celebrity is a coin, and you want to spend it carefully," says Hollywood icon Michael J. Fox, who is Co-Founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. It's not hard to imagine that the approximately 1 million Americans who live with Parkinson's are grateful that he chose to use his “coin” to create awareness, revamp research processes, and search for effective treatments.

Indeed, Fox illustrates the unique role philanthropists can play in injecting much-needed dollars and innovation into the field of medical research. Currently, the bulk of funding comes from the drug industry and the government, funding sources that each arouse concerns: the drug industry for conflict of interest and other issues, and government funding for the consequences of sequestration cuts. And although philanthropists provide only a small percentage of medical research funding, their ability to take risks, tackle little-known diseases, and create their own processes may well prove crucial to the future of medical research.

Raising awareness for little-known conditions

One powerful contribution that philanthropists can make to medical research is in raising awareness. For example, in the early 1990s, Co-Founder of The Home Depot Bernie Marcus began the Marcus Autism Center after witnessing the challenges facing an employee who had an autistic child. “When you think about autism today, everybody knows about it,” says Marcus. “You take the clock and go back 10 years, nobody knew about it.” Indeed, in his research Marcus learned that although autism in children was common—one child out of every 88 had it—research was negligible.

Autism Speaks: How Bernie Marcus’s persistence built an international voice for autism


To see more videos featuring Bernie Marcus, click here.

In order to understand autism and treat children with the condition, Marcus gathered together fellow philanthropists and top medical researchers. The need for the center's work was tremendous, particularly since caring for a child with autism can be extremely expensive, and the center was doing good work. But that need outstripped resources. "We just got inundated," says Marcus. "I was carrying this by myself—the state didn’t help us, the federal government didn’t help us," he says. Continuing on in that same way was financially unsustainable. "One day I realized that the reason it wasn’t working was because people didn’t understand autism,” says Marcus. He made it his mission to make sure people did. For example, a Philanthropy magazine article notes that he brought legislators and other public officials to the center. In addition, Marcus also recruited philanthropists Bob and Suzanne Wright to start Autism Speaks. The science and advocacy organization, launched with $25 million from Marcus, funds research into causes, prevention, and treatments. It also funds research into finding a cure, as well as other work. On the awareness front, in 2005, Autism Speaks' first year in operation, the organization create a "media blitz" to raise awareness for the condition. “Because of Autism Speaks," says Marcus, "more money is going into autism because it’s become an epidemic in people’s eyes.”

“Celebrity is a coin” that Michael J. Fox spends carefully to achieve his goals


To see more videos featuring Michael J. Fox, click here.

Marcus is not the only philanthropist who raised the profile of a little-known health issue. Awareness around Parkinson's disease can largely be credited to Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1991, but kept his condition private at first. As time passed, producing and acting on the series Spin City and hiding his condition became increasingly difficult. "It got problematic," he recounts, "so I told people about it." He was surprised by the response. "It was a big story," he says. "Then after a couple of days the story switched from being about me to being about Parkinson's." Fox quickly recognized that what had been a painful secret—and continues to be a personal health battle—had opened up a new path to be of service. "This is opportunity to effect a change in the lives of a lot of people," he recalls thinking.

Mike Milken, co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, chairman of the Milken Institute, and founder of the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) and FasterCures, is another philanthropist who has done much in the field of medical philanthropy, so much so that in 2004 Fortune magazine dubbed him "The Man Who Changed Medicine." Although he had long been involved in medical philanthropy, after his prostate cancer diagnosis in 1993, Milken's involvement ramped up. He was instrumental in lifting the issue of prostate cancer out from obscurity and into the public spotlight, and he did so through a number of creative and decisive actions. Just one example: Milken heard that a promising researcher was searching for a gene related to prostate cancer, but he lacked a sufficient number of people to study, according to the Fortune article. Finding families who were willing to be studied could be difficult and time-consuming, so Milken brought the need to a public arena. He made some calls, and the researchers appeared on the Larry King Live show in an episode devoted to prostate cancer. When the show asked for volunteers, 3,000 people called in, and in three weeks the researchers had a sufficient number of qualified families. Milken is also credited as being instrumental to a landmark 1998 march in Washington, D.C., which targeted raising cancer’s political profile. "The March…Coming Together to Conquer Cancer" brought together 150,000 people representing more than 600 cancer organizations, according to Celebration of Science, an initiative of Milken’s FasterCures and the Milken Institute.

Venture philanthropy: How Mike Milken’s $100 million unlocked $10 billion in giving


To see more videos featuring Mike Milken, click here.

Accelerating the pace of research

For many philanthropists, raising awareness is key, but the work does not stop there. Indeed, awareness precedes or is used in conjunction with something vital to those who engage in medical philanthropy: Injecting much-needed responsiveness and innovation into medical research processes. Herb Sandler and his late wife, Marion Sandler, did just that. Sandler co-founded and ran Golden West Financial Corporation for 43 years, along with Marion. It was Marion's own struggle with asthma that originally put the disease on the Sandlers’ philanthropic radar, but in short order they recognized it as a pervasive and critical health issue. Despite asthma’s prevalence—for example, the disease causes 3,500 deaths in the United States each year—the couple found that the field of asthma research and treatment was stagnant. They believed that the problem could largely be blamed on the fact that the same type of people continually worked on asthma research without the contributions of specialists and experts in other fields. To achieve "cross-pollination" and attract innovative researchers and their most promising ideas, the Sandlers offered large grants, created a short grant application, and instituted a fast approval process. Herb points out that this was in stark contrast to the typically thick applications that researchers had to complete for most grants and the long approval waiting periods that went with them. The response was overwhelming. “We were turning down Nobel laureates,” says Herb. That kick-start and subsequent work has proved key in asthma research, Herb believes. Since the Sandlers began focusing on asthma in the late 1990s, breakthroughs in research and treatment followed. For example, the American Asthma Foundation, established with support from the Sandler Foundation, has had five drugs in clinical trials as a result of its research program.

A pioneering approach in medical research: The Sandlers recruit non-asthma scientists to research asthma


To see more videos featuring Herb Sandler, click here.

The Sandlers weren't the only philanthropists to inject innovation into a stagnant area of medical research. Milken has done much to innovate the field, beginning with prostate cancer research. Although prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men other than skin cancer, only a handful of grants went to studying prostate cancer when Milken received his diagnosis in 1993. Moreover, researchers who opted to study it in the 1980s and 1990s were essentially committing career suicide. Part of the problem was that in many men the disease progressed very slowly, and subsequently that was the pace of research as well: Slow. There were other problems as well. As is the case even today, grant applications, which could run hundreds of pages, were formidable and time-consuming—simply gathering data and research to apply could take a year or more. In addition, the review process was long; researchers might have to wait another year or so for that stage, then another year to be allocated money. It’s a pace that strongly hinders responsiveness to emerging research and innovative breakthroughs. In addition, the medical research community routinely rejected considering the ideas of up-and-coming researchers in favor of more traditional ideas from more established researchers.

Milken’s response? He had the Prostate Cancer Foundation put out a call for researchers' most innovative ideas. "We initiated programs where you could submit a five-page application and we would let you know whether you’re going to be funded in 60 days or less," he says. "It attracted the best and brightest to the field." That kind of leadership and risk taking typifies the special role philanthropists can play. "There is no individual, there is no foundation that can match government or industry commitments in medical research," says Milken. For this reason, he points out that it's crucial for philanthropists to lead the way by doing "venture philanthropy" and shining a light on an innovative path that would not be tried otherwise. Milken's forward-thinking leadership has led to PCF advances in important new drugs and research advances in areas such as genetics, biomarkers, nutrition, and androgen receptors.

Milken also set an example by focusing funding on treatment-driven research, rather than on basic science, and on requiring researchers to share findings, even in advance of publication. "The people we fund have to share," he told them in no uncertain terms. Although many researchers at first balked at such a request, "Within six months, every single person that told us they could not share, shared." Indeed Milken's FasterCures, a center of the Milken Institute and an action tank focused on removing barriers to medical progress, has as one of its central tenets the promotion of collaborative research, led with the patient in mind, and tackles the entire spectrum of medical research.

Making connections and looking ahead

Today, Fox is back in the entertainment news for the debut of his new TV series, The Michael J. Fox Show. Yet his beloved Hollywood icon status has, for many years, taken a backseat to the work he has done with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Co-founded with Deborah W. Brooks, the foundation is leading the way in Parkinson's research and drug development. The Michael J. Fox Foundation seeks to change the medical research status quo system where good ideas disappear in bureaucratic and rigid processes. It does so with a focus on quickly identifying promising research and treatment and accelerating the path of promising treatments. To that end, the foundation is backing an early stage clinical trial of a first-of-its-kind vaccine approach to treating Parkinson's disease, and it works with big pharmaceutical companies to speed advances in medicine. The foundation also connects volunteers to clinical trials through its Web-based tool the Fox Trial Finder, which is a crucial—and challenging—component of medical research. According to the foundation's site, "across all diseases, 80 percent of clinical trials finish late due to difficulties enrolling participants, and nearly one-third of trials fail to recruit a single subject and cannot ever begin." To date, the foundation has succeeded in attracting 22,235 volunteers. In addition, by the end of 2011 the Michael J. Fox Foundation "had funded more than $57 million in groundbreaking research, and its team of neuroscientists and business strategists had reviewed over 900 grant applications, bringing its portfolio up to 400 active grants.

Those results are impressive, but Fox considers achievement on a more personal level as well and takes his role personally. "It's really important that I'm present for [people in the community] when they come up to me and say 'hello,' and I can be reassuring and inspirational, hopefully." And pointing to a Team Fox marathon team, which raises funds for the foundation and includes members with Parkinson's, Fox says, "The fact that those people, as inspiring and powerful and motivated as they are, look to us as their avenue to a cure or to better treatments, really steps up our sense of responsibility and our pride to be part of that community."

Younger Donors, Impact Investing, and the Blurring Lines Between Business and Philanthropy

New-philanthropy-collage_198x135.jpg"I’ve always found it delightful to push people’s conventional thinking, to be a little contrarian," says philanthropist and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. "I really like to challenge people’s assumptions about what is the best way to make the world better."

Omidyar is not the only philanthropist with nontraditional ideas about how best to create social change. And with new ideas comes new influences into the philanthropic arena. Here are just three.

Young donors and Silicon Valley-style work processes are changing the philanthropic status quo.
Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), is on the forefront of philanthropy and says that younger donors are one reason the philanthropic landscape is changing. Silicon Valley is replete with young entrepreneurs who make big bets, aren't afraid of risk, and operate with expectations of 24/7 connectivity, quick turnarounds, and direct involvement. When those entrepreneurs become philanthropists, Carson says that they approach giving with a similar mindset. It's a mindset Carson embraces. “They want partnerships; they want people who can go on the journey with them,” he says. Of the old philanthropic model, wherein donors were expected to simply entrust funds to philanthropic experts, Carson says simply, "that model is broken." Another difference Carson points to is the agile, iterative approach to philanthropy—you might call it adaptive strategy—modeled on software and project development so evident in Silicon Valley. To this point, Carson is a true believer in evaluating grantee performance using cheap, low-cost tools at frequent intervals rather than expensive studies at the beginning and end of a grant term. "As we learn something, we disseminate it," says Carson. "The idea of just doing the same thing for three to five years and then you’re going to tell me if it’s successful? No business runs like that, other than foundations."

Emmett Carson on keeping up with young philanthropists

Game-changing funding models like impact investing are expanding how philanthropic investments are made.
What constitutes appropriate philanthropic investments is another area that is seeing burgeoning—and polarizing—change. Impact investing is a prime example of this, which broadly defined, means investing capital to generate social impact in a way that also provides monetary returns.  Perhaps not surprisingly, some of impact investing's most vocal proponents come from the tech world, whose very existence rests on innovation and transforming the status quo. eBay's Omidyar is among those who believe impact investing can be a powerful force for creating social change. Through his “philanthropic investment firm,” the Omidyar Network, Omidyar invests in a wide range of nonprofits—such as Refugees United, a web-based platform that enables displaced people to register to find missing family members—and for-profit companies that have the potential for profound social impact, such as d.light, which sells affordable solar lights to the world's poorest, many of whom lack access to electric light.

Pierre Omidyar on making the unconventional conventional

The Case Foundation's Steve and Jean Case, both of whom got millions of Americans online with AOL, also think impact investing has the potential to be a powerful tool for philanthropists. Jean points out that impact investing could be considered as one of the ways even traditional philanthropic organizations can strategically leverage some of their dollars toward social issues. "Impact investing will create a terrific opportunity for foundations and large organizations with large endowments," she says.

"I think we're kind of in the early days," says Steve, "but [impact investing] really is a place where things are trying to come together in a more integrated way and take some of the principles of business but also some of the principles of the social sector." He believes that this "blended model" will have a lot of appeal, "particularly for the up-and-coming philanthropists who don't want to just do it in a completely traditional way."

Jean and Steve Case on impact investing

Despite impact investing's potential, many in the philanthropic arena urge a cautionary approach. For example, echoing Steve's words about the "early days," a survey from JP Morgan Chase and the Global Impact Investing Network characterized the field of impact investing as “in its infancy and growing.” The survey also highlighted the lack of a track record of successful investments, a shortage of quality investment opportunities, and inadequate impact measurement practice. These potential challenges are significant, and may take decades to overcome. Due to the nature of these challenges, a report by the Monitor Institute and the Acumen Fund argues that impact investing is not a replacement for philanthropic contributions, but rather a complement, helping organizations to grow once they have proven the success of their model using, frequently, philanthropic contributions. In addition, despite the potential of impact investing, some who have studied the nascent field are worried that the approach could undermine support for philanthropy. Potential investors should realize that impact investing will require significant due diligence and attention to measuring results, and that however the field emerges, traditional philanthropic contributions will continue to be necessary.

For some, the lines between business and philanthropy are blurring.
One definition of philanthropy is an "active effort to promote human welfare," and many people today believe that the division between businesses and nonprofits is fading as new generations become more experimental about how to create social change. For example, Steve and Jean Case say they aim for the same vision from different sectors. While Steve invests in socially conscious businesses such as Revolution, Jean manages the family foundation—but both target investing in people and ideas that can change the world. And when they can bridge the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, they do. "The Startup America Partnership is a good example of where we're bringing some of the entrepreneurial capabilities together with what we're doing on the foundation; marrying that up with what's happening with the government side of things," says Steve.

Jean and Steve Case on bridging business and nonprofit ventures

Josh Mailman, son of the late Joseph Mailman, founder of a knife and razor company that grew into the conglomerate Mailman Corporation, is another philanthropist-businessman who subscribes to the "business can be a force for good" mindset. "I want to change the world, not just make money out of the businesses," he says. To his point: He was among the first investors in environmental household products and distributor Seventh Generation; yogurt-maker and leader in the corporate social responsibility space Stonyfield Farm; and the Utne Reader, a magazine devoted to alternative coverage. "When there's for-profit structures, I'll make investments; when there's nonprofit structures, I'll do grants," he says.

Mailman has also had a hand launching organizations that promote collaboration among private companies, social entrepreneurs, private investors, early stage ventures, Fortune 1000 businesses, and business school students to promote socially responsible business. To name just a few: He has gathered other wealthy individuals to promote social good through the Threshold Foundation and is co-founder of Social Venture Network, a community of social entrepreneurs; and played a key role in launching the global network devoted to sustainable business, BSR (Business for Social Responsibility).

As with impact investing, the concept of businesses doing good can be incredibly complex. For example, in 2011 the Center for Effective Philanthropy President Phil Buchanan, speaking largely to the issue of big corporations creating shared philanthropic and business value, writes, "Our most pressing social problems are, almost by definition, the ones that markets haven’t solved over the decades—either because they defy market solutions or result from market failures." And in an earlier piece, he writes that some "seem not to understand—or perhaps choose not to acknowledge—that the ability to operate outside of traditional market dynamics is at the root of why the nonprofit sector matters!"

Josh Mailman on putting impact investing to work

New kinds of donors, who bring new ways of thinking about how to create change are affecting traditional views of philanthropy. To what extent these forces will affect the field of giving and whether they will create positive transformative change—or inhibit it—remains to be seen.