03/13/2012 |

In Philanthropy, Getting Focused Pays Off

03/13/2012 |

By Alison Powell

Give Smart co-author and Bridgespan co-founder and chairman Tom Tierney sat down with Henry Berman, the president of the Association of Small Foundations for an interview about philanthropy. You can find the full podcast here.

Tierney talked in part about some of the “timeless truths” and patterns he and co-author Joel Fleishman unearthed while writing Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results. One of the patterns that Tierney shares is that donors who engage in “fewer, bigger, longer” strategic initiatives generally get greater results than donors who shift their strategies frequently. Why? Because according to Tierney, philanthropy is “not just about writing checks, it’s also about influence.” And it’s hard to be truly influential across many, many giving areas just as it is difficult to be influential if you don’t stick with a cause you care about for long enough to truly learn what works and what didn’t work so well.

Take the Gates Foundation, for example. Tierney shares the story of how a number of years into the Gates’ work in K-12 education, the foundation famously hit the “reset button” when it learned its focus on small schools was not achieving the systems-wide change that it had sought. Was this admission of a failure? No. According to Tierney, the “gutwrenching” decisions he imagined foundation leaders made are evidence that the donors were not willing to accept “Bs and C’s” for their philanthropic results. Instead, foundation leaders adjusted to ensure their strategies are most likely to meet their ambitious goals.

What do you think are the benefits of “fewer, bigger, longer” for your philanthropy? Or of the difficult decisions that may be required to ensure continued impact?

For more on the timeless truths Tierney and Berman discuss, click here for the full podcast.

Alison Powell is Bridgespan’s Philanthropy Knowledge Manager. Follow her on Twitter @abp615.
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