January 15, 2016

Prioritize Your Strategic Initiatives and Seek Advice

This article is part of a toolkit on how to get more serious about your philanthropy. For an introduction, see Finding Your Philanthropy Compass. For other sections, see the bottom of the page.

Since every worthy cause needs significant philanthropic support, the division of resources among your initiatives is a combination of a personal choice and getting really honest with yourself about what change you can realistically accomplish with the resources at hand. (To see how other philanthropists have wrestled with fundamental philanthropy questions, see “Galvanizing Philanthropy.”) Ask yourself: From a personal values perspective, how do I want to invest my time and resources across my different initiatives? Do I care about everything equally? Favoring one cause over another is fine, but you’ll want to consider the tradeoffs and implications—for example, the extent to which you would like to be able to use your resources to affect a given issue.

Once you’ve made some initial choices—but before you engage in funding—it will be important to do some reality checking.

It is important to be clear about your starting point early on; however, it’s also likely that your priorities, and your approach, will evolve over time, as you learn more and start seeing results.

Directing your resources to strategic initiatives

Once you’ve made some initial choices—but before you engage in funding—it will be important to do some reality checking. Gathering information on the “landscape” will help. You will likely want to ask questions about the size of the problem, the number of people involved, the geographic scope, and other major funding this cause receives. Is it reasonable to imagine you could have an impact with just a portion of your philanthropic dollars? Do the resources that you’ll be committing seem sufficient to fund and sustain your initiatives? If not, you may want to re-jigger your allocations, or narrow your focus in a given area, such that you can set a goal that is achievable with the resources at hand.

Consider, for example, how three philanthropists sought to influence education on very different levels by defining problems differently and investing accordingly:

  • Changing systems on a national scale. In 2011, the Walton Family Foundation announced an ambitious, $157 million investment in education reform aimed at increasing school choice among low-income families. Its three-pronged strategy involves efforts to influence public policy, to create new schools, and to improve existing ones.
  • Influencing local districts. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation works on education reform across a broad platform of strategies, but one of its most targeted investments is an annual award of $1 million to an urban district that demonstrates improvements in student achievement.
  • Supporting a single nonprofit. John Simon’s support of The Steppingstone Foundation, a $3 million, Boston-based nonprofit, didn’t set out to solve a big, national problem, but instead to address the specific needs of one organization serving middle school students.

You don’t have to have your initiatives mapped down to the penny—more detailed planning will come later. The goal, early on, is to gauge whether your resources are generally “right-sized” to the task at hand. As you gather information, and see results on the ground, you will want to revisit your decisions to account for what you are learning.

How will I reach my goals for each of these initiatives?

Determining your strategic initiatives goes only a short distance to helping you make decisions about where you will devote your resources. Will you write checks to existing organizations? Fund research in your area of interest? For answers to some of these questions, you’ll ultimately want a plan for each of your focus areas. If you simply want a brief overview of different types of strategies philanthropists have employed, visit “When You’ve Made Enough to Make a Difference.”

Regardless of the specific initiatives you pursue, the act of ramping up your giving will likely demand an added commitment of time and skills to enact them. The next few sections will help you think about the specific tasks that your strategic initiatives might require of you, and how you might access outside support for tasks that you cannot or choose not to perform.

What tasks will my philanthropy require?

The Giving Checklist provides a list of all the different tasks that ramping up your philanthropy might require you to conduct. This checklist is meant to be completed in two parts. First, tailor it according to your own particular situation (e.g., your legal structure, your organization’s size, the amount of time you would like to devote). For example, if you’re working through a private foundation, you’ll need to establish a board of directors by law. If you’re acting through a donor-advised fund, you will need very little, if any, investment management support, as DAFs typically manage your philanthropic assets for you. If you’re not clear on the particular demands of your preferred structure, be sure to consult your attorney or financial advisor.

Next, for each task that you’re going to conduct, decide if you expect to perform it on your own, or whether you’ll seek help. Do you have the time, energy, and required knowledge to conduct each of these activities? Many philanthropists tend to start by doing most of the work on their own, or with a very small group of people, and then, as the demands on their time start to build up, they bring additional hands on deck.

What should I consider when bringing in advice and help from the outside?

Outside help need not always come in the form of paid staff. There are four different sources of potential advice and support for your organization.

Volunteer advisors

You may have personal or professional networks that you can tap for advice. Think widely about your network and whose advice you respect and trust.

Paid advisors or contractors

There are many sources of outside advice, in the form of contractors and consultants, who will perform a full range of philanthropy activities from helping you write a mission statement to help with streamlining and organizing your processes, to sourcing and screening grantees, to conducting evaluations. In fact, some consultants offer to perform the entire suite of services in a one-stop shop. These advisors can be particularly useful for tasks that require a great deal of one-off capacity or for activities that are performed with some degree of regularity but are cyclical or seasonal.

Boards of directors

Will some component of your philanthropy, like a private foundation, require a board of directors? A good board of directors can be an unparalleled source of expertise across many functions. At the same time, remember that a board’s proper role is governance, and avoid giving this group too many functional responsibilities.

Hired staff

On one hand, hiring professional staff can take your giving from “0 to 60” very fast by creating a year-round operation for your giving. On the other, the decision to hire professional staff is a big one, and entails much commitment up front. While in the long-run, it may free up your time enormously, it nearly always involves ceding control of at least some decisions and sacrificing some measure of day-to-day oversight over your own giving. For more guidance on hiring staff, and some pitfalls to avoid, see “How to Think About Your First Hire.


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