January 15, 2016

Translate Your Values and Beliefs into Strategic Initiatives

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.

Philanthropy is a public expression of personal values. Once you have defined your values and beliefs, you can use them to help make difficult, often public, decisions. Distilling your interests into certain areas of focus, upon which you might build individual giving strategies, can help set clear boundaries for those seeking your help.

Once you have defined your values and beliefs, you can use them to help make difficult, often public, decisions.

That’s not to say that all of your philanthropy should necessarily be "strategic." It’s worth reflecting first on the philanthropic obligations you already have—for example, organizations you or other family members have donated to for a long time and plan to keep on supporting. You may also wish to designate a certain amount of money as being “in reserve” for the explicit purpose of responding to personal requests that fall outside of your core values and beliefs, say to give back to institutions that have meant something to you or to allow other family members to contribute to their own passions. With your remaining giving resources, you can decide whether you’d like to focus on one issue or fund several different issues.

Consider the experience of Peter and Jennifer Buffett. In 2006, the Buffetts were faced with a tough but enviable task: Peter’s father, Warren, gave his son and daughter-in-law $1 billion to do as they wished philanthropically. Though Peter and his wife had been involved in philanthropy for some time, mostly giving to small social service and arts causes in Milwaukee, the new sum posed a thrilling new challenge—Peter called it “the Big Bang.” Given their expansion in resources, the Buffetts felt compelled to look beyond the United States and take a more global view, and set out on a fact-finding mission through Asia and Africa. Throughout their travels, they were particularly troubled by the power imbalance between men and women. The firsthand observation of these power imbalances led them to focus their giving on women and girls and preventing violence. As they learned more about the issues women and girls face, they developed an interest in social and emotional learning as a pathway to address such challenges. For the Buffetts, these three interests converged around a single strategic initiative, which led them to begin directing a significant portion of their newfound resources to organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and Women for Women International, which had long histories of working on improving the status of women and girls. (For more on the Buffett's philanthropy, see "The Buffetts Find 'The Sound'.")

How to translate your beliefs into strategic initiatives

In many cases, like the Buffetts', you’ll find the things you care about tend to coalesce into themes. There’s no right answer to how to organize your giving—other philanthropists, like Ray Chambers, have chosen to pursue multiple strategies. Chambers’ interests in promoting world peace and supporting his hometown, Newark, New Jersey, have led him to pursue two independent strategic initiatives. One is to eradicate malaria globally by employing both his money and his business experience; another seeks to revitalize the social and economic infrastructure of Newark primarily by expanding youth mentoring efforts. You’ll need to consider how integrated you want your philanthropy to be, and very likely want to revise these areas over time as you learn more.

Once you have identified which and how many areas you will support, you will then likely need to prioritize among them.


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