June 10, 2011

Blending Philanthropic Dreams with Data

Philanthropists who are blending their dreams of a better world with the hard data and evidence required to make change happen.

By: Susan Wolf Ditkoff

Susan Wolf DitkoffLast week was my sixth Harvard Business School Alumni Board meeting. It's a surprisingly diverse group of alumni, representing over 15 countries from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria to Brazil, and dozens of graduating classes and industries. Many have achieved significant financial success; others are fulfilling the school's mission of "educating leaders who make a difference in the world" by leading mission-driven enterprises.

Given the stereotypes surrounding business school grads, I was a bit surprised at how many board members not only cared about social sector issues, but also were deeply engaged. It took various forms: In terms of careers, many had been leaders within multiple sectors over the courses of their careers. In fact, our outgoing board chair co-founded the Global Philanthropy Group, which is dedicated to serving high net-worth philanthropists, after a career in the private sector. Many others are highly engaged in the social sector in terms of substantial board commitments and volunteer time, and had dedicated substantial time to fundraising on behalf of causes they cared about. And everyone was concerned about whether their philanthropic dollars–be they modest or substantial–were being spent well.

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Despite the board's diversity, one common thread was the commitment to results and excellence in their social sector endeavors. Over the multi-day meeting, I got to ask my fellow board members my favorite question: "So, you're interested in X social cause. What does success look like?" Overwhelmingly, people responded with really specific interests: Charter schools. Disruptive technologies in healthcare rolling out across the developing world. Base of the pyramid business models. Smart grids. A competitive workforce in their geography.

At Bridgespan we've seen this trend play out time and again–the growing number of philanthropists who care about the results their dollars are creating. Philanthropists who are blending their dreams of a better world with the hard data and evidence required to make change happen. So now I'll ask you my favorite question: What does success look like in your philanthropy? If you're intrigued by the question, I invite you to read "Defining Success," which highlights a how a number of philanthropists are blending their dreams.

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