All philanthropy is personal; deeply so. The motivation to spend hard-earned money to tackle intractable environmental, social, or medical issues springs from caring a lot about a cause, one that either affected you or your family directly or spoke to you in some primal way. The trouble is, although many worthy causes exist, you only have limited amounts of time and money to devote to them. Philanthropists therefore must make hard choices about focus: Is it better to fund clean-air projects, after-school tutoring, or cancer research? There is no right answer—your personal passions and what you believe is worth doing will drive your philanthropic priorities. To reflect on what these priorities might be, it might help to review some broad categories that have anchored other donors.
Where to begin? Start by defining what we call the “anchors” for your philanthropy. Defining these anchors—the people, places, problems, pathways, and philosophies you really care about—will help you narrow your choices and describe (in broad strokes) the impact you’d like your philanthropy to have.
You may be drawn to help a specific group of people address circumstances that are defining (and probably limiting) their lives. Larry and Joyce Stupski’s foundation, for example, seeks to help children overcome the barriers of poverty and racial injustice.
A particular problem may compel your attention. Disturbed by the number of preventable deaths in car crashes, John Dorr advocated tirelessly for highway officials to paint a white stripe on the far right side of the road to demarcate the outside edge of the pavement, a simple step in preventing accidents.
Maintaining or restoring the health of and vitality of a particular geography is another possible focus area. Dwayne Steele, a Kansas native who put down roots in Hawaii, embarked on a philanthropic quest to preserve the Hawaiian language. Hawaiians and local philanthropists claim he initiated a “Hawaiian cultural renaissance” and credit him with not just the preservation of the language, but its rebirth.
A strongly-held belief in the importance of a particular approach provides the foundation of many philanthropists’ activities. The Omidyars’ belief in the power of technology and individuals to drive change is one example; belief in the value of a mentor to guide and support youth provides another.
Your beliefs around how the world works, or should work, might be your anchor, as they are for George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations, which seek to build “vibrant and tolerant democracies.”
Embark on a Personal Journey
Perhaps you wish to follow in the footsteps of parents or others you admire and support the causes that they did. Maybe you would like your philanthropy to respond to an event that transformed your world view, such as a child’s critical illness. Or you may have identified several problems facing your community and feel inspired to "do your share." What is the essence of this very personal choice? Ask yourself these questions:
- What motivates you to give? (Spiritual beliefs, a desire to help others as you were once helped, something else?)
- What values have your family and other role models passed on to you?
- What past experiences have shaped your beliefs or your thinking?
- What interests or concerns you—for instance, which stories do you read first in the newspaper or online?
- Where have you spent your time and money in the past? Why?
Clarity is Critical
Clarifying your values is the best way we know to ensure that your philanthropy will express—and continue to express—what matters most to you. The specific priorities you express today may evolve and change over time. But deep personal values tend to persist—and as a result, they can provide a continuing touchstone throughout a lifetime of philanthropy. In addition, a spouse, family members, interested friends, or professional advisors all need clarity, to say nothing of trustees and staff members. Your passion may launch the philanthropic process, but you need the help of these others to bring it to life. If you establish a foundation intended to last in perpetuity, explicitly clarifying your values will make it far more likely that your foundation will continue to embody and act on them long after you’ve left the stage.