September 20, 2012

Using Your Philanthropy Compass to Make Tough Choices

By: The Bridgespan Group
Philanthropy requires tough choices. Even the wealthiest philanthropist won't be able to end poverty, prevent childhood obesity, or ensure everyone receives the same educational opportunities. But your philanthropy compass can help you with these choices. That's why last week in our "Finding Your Philanthropy Compass" series we discussed making choices about which philanthropic causes you'll want to get serious about supporting. Now, we're ready to tackle decisions about resource allocation, or how you'll divide your resources among those causes.

To start the process, you may find it helpful to set some baseline priorities. Ask yourself: From a personal values perspective, how do I want to invest my time and resources across my different causes? Do I care about everything equally?

Favoring one cause over another is fine, but you’ll want to consider the tradeoffs and implications. It's 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.

Once you’ve made some initial choices—but before you engage in funding—it will be important to do some reality checking. 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. And you'll want to use your answers to get honest with yourself about what change you can realistically accomplish with the resources at hand, and to perhaps re-jigger your allocations or narrow your focus area accordingly.
As an illustration, let's take philanthropy focused on education reform. Here's 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.

That said, the act of ramping up your giving will likely demand an added commitment of time and skills to enact them, so you'll want to give that some thought too: Think about the specific tasks that your strategic initiatives might require of you (see The Giving Checklist for help), and how you might access outside support for tasks that you cannot or choose not to perform. For example, you may wish to ask the advice and support of volunteer advisors, or you may choose to pay advisors or contractors. In addition, some component of your philanthropy, like a private foundation, may require a board of directors. And, of course, there is the big decision of whether or not to hire professional staff. Each of these sources of support offers benefits and limitations that you will want to consider.

In other words, getting more strategic about the causes that mean the most to you is no simple task, and although we've touched on a lot here, you may wish to read "Prioritize Your Strategic Initiatives and Seek Advice" on which this is based for more in-depth guidance.

Check back next week when we'll discuss how you can incorporate continual learning into your philanthropy.

This is the fourth post in our series on "Finding Your Philanthropy Compass." In case you missed a week, see below for previous posts in this series.

"Finding Your Philanthropy Compass" Series

We invite you to tell us what you think by commenting below or with #PhilanthropyCompass on Twitter. You can follow Give Smart updates at @BridgespanGroup.

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