From “I Fund” to “I Change” – 6 Questions that Guide Your Giving to Greater Impact
How much have you granted in the past year? In the past five years? Do you know the difference those gifts made? Or, to use a current buzzword – do you know the impact?
We all want to know that our gifts and our grantees are making a difference, that they’re moving the needle. The harder part is determining what needle we actually want to move, and then aligning our processes, people, and passions to move it.
Whether you’re a family, private, or corporate foundation, or an intentional donor giving through a DAF, read on for 6 questions that guide you to greater impact.
But first, a definition. What is impact? Exponent Philanthropy defines it as “a significant positive effect; or to strongly influence a cause, field, or community.” We often say that it’s making a meaningful and measurable difference for the issues, people, or causes we care about.
Good intentions don’t get you to your final destination. You need a clear roadmap for success. The key is asking the right questions:
What do we truly aim to change and what will the world (or at least the cause we care about) look like when we change it?
Before you start the journey, define your destination. Notice the subtle change here from “what do I want to fund? Or what do I want to do?” to what do I want to change?” This subtle shift has dramatic implications. Rather than saying, “I fund education,” consider saying, “If I fund education with excellence, I’d like to see more first generation students from low income communities graduate high school and pursue college or vocational training that leads to careers.” Be sure that success aligns with your foundation’s vision, mission, and values.
You may have some other goals for your family (family connectedness), corporation (employee engagement, brand equity), which should be considered when thinking about your impact.
How will we know we got there?
We’ve seen foundations track and communicate the number of grants they awarded and the number of people served. That’s activity, not impact. Impact is knowing – really understanding – the difference those grants made. How did lives change? Instead of “how much scholarship money was awarded,” ask “how many first generation students started college?” “How many finished?” Spend some time at the beginning developing questions and processes to help you determine how you will know if and when you achieve your desired impact.
What’s happening now, that should inform my strategy?
Learn everything you can about the work being done to address that issue – the good, the bad, and the ugly. In almost any field there are leaders, researchers, risk-takers, and passionate workers who’ve likely identified best practices, pitfalls, and how to move needles. Why reinvent the wheel when you could learn from both their successes and their failures? We suggest a series of informational interviews, asking the experts questions like: What are the latest advances in this field? What research informs your work? Can you point us to some of the most effective work happening around the country? How do you measure success? What are people piloting? What questions are you asking? Who else should I know?
Then, meet with leaders in your local community to understand the need within your funding footprint. The way you address poverty in Springfield, Missouri is different than the way you address it in St. Louis. Ask things like, What’s over- or under-funded? What do you think we’re missing? What has succeeded or failed locally? What networks, convenings, or collaboration exists? If I could align my funding to create movement here, what advice would you give me?
What is our role?
Yes, you make grants. But there are a multitude of ways to do this. Determine the types of grants you are best suited to make that align with your mission and the issue/cause you want to address. You can make gifts that support existing, new, or expanded programs. You can help build agency and/or program capacity, or invest in leadership development. You can provide grants that advance policy, venture grants that catalyze pilots and new ideas, or matching grants that encourage others to give and enhance sustainability.
You also have lots of tools beyond giving money away. You can convene grantees, key stakeholders, lawmakers, and others. You can provide thought leadership. You can commission white papers or research. You can listen and provide feedback. You can be out-front on an issue, conducting media interviews and writing blogs.
Where do we go from here?
Foundations, and often individual donors, are great at collecting information – you have files full of data. Take time each year to reflect on your grants and your grantmaking strategy. What worked and what didn’t? How could you do this better next time? Then, share your learnings with the broader community – other grantmakers and service providers. Help others learn along with you so that we can all get better at our work.
Is this joyful?
Last tip: The biggest lesson we’ve learned over the years? Keep it simple. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to build strategy that looks amazing on paper but leaves you overwhelmed and exhausted. So, make sure your structure and tools are right-sized to your foundation or giving structure. If you’re just starting down this path, it’s completely fine to start small. Start with a few things, learn, and then consider expanding later, based on your learning and experience.