Aligning the Why, Who, What, And How
I recently noticed when driving down the highway that my car was pulling to the right. After months of ignoring it, its become harder to drive, and I’ve finally admitted it’s time to take it in for a realignment.
Just like cars, giving can get out of alignment, too. We’ve seen it happen many times in our work with foundations, nonprofits, companies, and families. Frequently, it starts with a nagging question around “Are we making the greatest impact we can with what we have?” After applying some diagnostics, we often find that one or more of the following are out of alignment:
Why – the donor’s vision
Who – the organizations, causes, populations, or focus areas supported
What – the desired outcomes/impact
How – the giving strategies (time, skill, and type of giving)
If it’s been awhile since you last reviewed your giving strategy, you may be due for a tune-up (or deeper repair) to ensure you’re in alignment.
But how do you do this? Read on for top questions that may indicate a lack of alignment and key ways to get your giving firing on all cylinders.
Is your WHY (vision) aligned with your WHAT (outcomes)?
If this is where you lack alignment you’ll ask questions like, “How do I know I’m making a difference? I’ve been funding this work for a decade (or more), but am I changing anything? “How can I tell who’s really making an impact?”
Example: Your vision is to reduce childhood obesity, but you have an unclear idea of what success looks like, or you find yourself funding programs without truly understanding how effective they are.
If this sounds similar to your situation, it’s time to get clear on what success looks like. Ask questions such as: What does it mean to reduce childhood obesity? What needles would actually move and by how much? What long-term outcomes define success? (A reduction in juvenile diabetes? A decrease in BMI?) What about short- or mid-term outcomes (An increase in activity? A decrease in screen time? Improved family habits around healthy cooking and eating?) What is the starting point/baseline?
Being clear on your WHAT (desired outcomes/impact) will also help you clarify your HOW (giving strategies). More on that later.
Is Your WHAT (outcomes) aligned with your WHO (focus area)?
Key questions include, “Isn’t there a lot of duplication of service?” “Should I fund the same way in the county that I do in the city?” “Is this the best way to address this need/issue?” “Who, exactly, is addressing this issue?” “I think we need to identify some new grantees, but which ones?”
Example: You have been funding services for older adults for several years, but there seems to be an increasing disconnect between your funding criteria and what agencies are requesting.
When we’re helping a new funder or family learn about a focus area for the first time, we often take a deep dive into the local and national community needs/issues and research, and do a series of informational interviews to inform the work. We talk with experts, researchers, and thought leaders who are dedicated to learning and advancing the most effective work. However, the research is constantly evolving and the players are constantly changing – if it’s been a while since you explored the latest research, consider taking a fresh look.
Then, consider how to create more clarity around your WHO (focus area) to more specifically reflect community needs/issues, and your WHAT (outcomes) to reflect best practices and direct your giving to what works.
Is your HOW (giving strategy) aligned with your WHAT (outcomes)?
Key questions include, “Should we consider multi-year grants?” “What does success look like in a general operating grant?” “How can I use impact investing or program-related investments (PRI’s) to move the needle in new ways?”
Example: You provide small, one-year program grants to several local organizations to help more youth graduate from high school, but you don’t see the needle moving.
If this hits close to home for you, take some time to review your giving strategies. Many foundations default to annual program funding, without exploring the myriad of other giving strategies available. We’ve seen many foundations enhance their impact and clarity by adjusting their HOW. Foundation Source has an exhaustive listing of different types of grant support, which can help get you thinking.
For example, if you only make one-year grants, consider if this is enough time for the charity to demonstrate any real results. Maybe a longer-term funding commitment (say 3 – 5 years) is needed. You can still build-in annual milestones and discontinue funding if the charity isn’t performing. Perhaps the nonprofits in your space could benefit from capacity-building grants to invest in technology or key expertise to help them advance. Maybe grantees are doing lots of collaborative work or exploring the possibility of a merger, and need funding to conduct proper due diligence or collaborate effectively (without dividing a typical grant amount by the number of partners). Maybe investing in a pilot program could help a local grantee implement a program or initiative that is proving effective in another part of the country.
Whatever alignment is needed, we find that revisiting your current approach with curiosity, introspection, and learning is a journey that most foundations find inspiring, refreshing, and a path to deeper impact.