Intentional Philanthropy: A Framework

by Sara J. Redington CFX0NGvUMAA3IutExponent Philanthropy’s 2015 Next Gen Fellows Program kicked off last week with a training intensive in Washington, D.C. Besides enjoying unseasonably warm weather and a robust conversation with foundation leaders from across the country, I was immediately captured by the intentionality with which the Exponent faculty and Next Gen Fellows approached their work.

These leaders are asking the tough questions. They are challenging themselves and their organizations to be more purposeful in their roles and how they effect change in their communities. Intentional philanthropy became the resounding theme of our two days together – and from it stemmed numerous innovative ideas about how foundations can maximize and amplify their impact.

While intentional philanthropy undoubtedly has multiple facets, below were the top six areas that seemed most critical to adopting a strategic approach:

1. Honing Mission. Most, if not all, foundations have a mission that outlines their foundation’s purpose and (at least generally) identifies their founder’s intent. Many of these foundations, however, felt that their missions were too broad. A broad mission can prevent Boards and staff members from feeling that they are really making a defined impact in any one area. Taking the difficult steps to assess guiding principles, plan strategically where and why a foundation wants to make a difference, sharpen the focus, and align the mission with institutional goals can help to provide a clear guide both for the foundation and its grantees.

2. Developing Leaders. Impactful foundations need smart leaders. And not just book smart (although that helps, too – I was impressed by the number of professionals in the room who had MBAs). Foundations need leaders at the helm who understand and appreciate the great responsibility and opportunity that comes with being a part of a foundation. The best leaders can then translate that stewardship philosophy into an actionable vision. They see the value of informed, empathetic leadership within their foundation, their grantee organizations, and other community partnerships – and they are willing to help develop leaders across that partner continuum.

3. Investing in Relationships. Whether it's deepening grantee relationships, building a team with shared goals, rallying a community around key issues, or advocating for change, all foundation impact begins and ends with relationship. The industry continues to evolve, constantly developing new methods for measuring, communicating, and evaluating giving strategies, partnerships, and practices. But no matter how sophisticated the technology or how exact the metrics, the art of relationship is at the center of philanthropy, and will continue to drive our decisions and impact going forward.

4. Embracing Change. As our speaker Gali Cooks stated, change is the only constant in foundation life. We must cyclically prepare for it, proactively manage through it, and consciously reflect on what we've learned and how we can improve from each of these inevitable shifts. Change may seem counterintuitive in the philanthropic sector (haven’t many of the same foundation practices been in place for at least the last 30 years?), but succession issues, pivots in strategic direction, and market fluctuations all can turn a smoothly-running foundation on its head. It’s good to be ready for change; it’s better to plan for it in advance.

5. Learning What We Don't Know. Akin to change, there are always new movements, best practices, and metrics to consider as we move through this work. Being honest with ourselves – or, as Janice Simsohn Shaw aptly describes it, “holding the mirror up” – to reveal those areas in which we need to continue to grow, is a key indicator of intentional philanthropy. Janice stated that there is power in humility. Indeed, it is humility that enables us to identify knowledge gaps and improvement areas, adjust our approach, and ultimately, maximize our impact.

6. Being Bold. Being content with the status quo, while not inherently wrong, is not a mark of intentional philanthropy. Whether it’s assessing the foundation’s effectiveness, crystallizing a point of view on key issues, or helping a grantee organization evolve, being intentional means approaching our role and the issues we address with a critical eye – and always striving to do better with the stewardship role we’ve been given. Foundations are given a gift of being able to look at the world through a different lens – a lens of possibility. By thinking outside of the box of what foundations are capable of, we can make a difference – sometimes, even bigger than we thought possible.

What is your experience with intentional philanthropy? What are the other areas that contribute to an intentional approach for foundations?

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