By Lance Trebesch
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for philanthropic endeavors. I have been blessed in my life, and was raised to help my fellow man when he was unable to help himself, something I try to instill in my employees to this day. Whether pulling over on the side of the highway to help a mother and her children change a flat tire, providing a hot, home-cooked meal to the young couple down the street who just had their first child, or donating money to my local animal shelter, I’m often looking to help others any way I can.
Becoming serious about philanthropy, however, is not a simple decision. While it is exciting to explore your core beliefs and aspirations, learn from those around you, and experiment with different types of organizations and grants, becoming a philanthropist is often a long, sometimes painstaking, journey. The journey can be overwhelming at times. The social and environmental needs are so great that it can be difficult to know where to begin. Also, the pressure to do really well is greater if you’re giving large amounts of money, and plan on giving over an extended period of time.
One of the main elements of developing your own philanthropic journey, as I’ve come to learn, is that every philanthropist’s adventure is completely unique. While you might have a history of donating in one area, it is important to explore your other areas of interest. Here are three stages to help you determine where your philanthropic endeavors might be best suited.
Early on, you will likely have a wide variety of causes that you are interested in. Most donors start by writing checks to various organizations with different goals. However, it might serve you best to decide where you want to get greater results through strategic planning and giving. In order to begin your journey, you will need to determine your boundaries and which causes you will focus on.
The best place to start is to evaluate what you truly have a passion for. Whether your local church, homeless shelter, or food bank, you are likely to revise your preferred causes. But it is important for you to have a semi-defined jumping off point. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when trying to determine the causes that matter most to you.
- What people, issues, and philosophies do I care about most?
- What do I like and dislike?
- What concentrations do I like, but want to learn more about?
- How much do I want to spend on each particular issue?
- What is my total philanthropic budget?
It can be easy to get too wrapped up in defining the perfect approach for your philanthropic journey. However, it can also be tempting to write checks and support every cause you have a passion for. To get started, itÃs important to recognize that you arenÃt creating a bid strategy, but that you are learning what it takes in order to get results. Also, youÃre learning more about how you want to move forward with your philanthropic efforts.
Some people choose to spend most of their lives exploring, and that doesn’t change when it comes to philanthropy. Others prefer to focus their commitment to a few areas and invest deeply. Whether you’ve had success in grant-making and have found causes you want to invest heavily in, or have found those that you choose not to support any longer, you will have gained a newfound perspective to help you narrow down your list of causes you want to support.
You may have begun to identify the results you are seeking, and what role you can play in order to make your philanthropic dreams a reality. This is when you should start to boil down your causes and determine what you want to focus on moving forward. It is also imperative to think about what you can do in order to reach your goals that you would be accountable for. Determining what you can invest, be it time, money or influence, and researching which avenues to travel to yield the best results, will help you decide where to focus your time and energy.
As you’re beginning to develop your strategy, it’s important for you to define what success would look like without getting into too many details. Work with grantees and other partners to identify a narrowed list of indicators that truly matter to you. Then, decide how you will know if things are working as they should, and how hiccups could have been avoided in your process.
However, beware of getting wrapped up in a grant selection process that prevents you from seeing great causes because they don’t meet a specific criterion. Focus on your grants adding up to your greater vision of success. Also, do not become overconfident. There will most likely come a time when you think you’d be better off on your own, but while that may seem enticing, it would be in your best interest to rethink taking the solo venture. As the excitement builds within, do not overthink what your resources can accomplish. It is all about remaining realistic. Examine how your philanthropy fits into the context of the field, and how your efforts might drive even greater change for the better of the causes you have chosen to focus on.
Get Out There with Guns Blazing
Philanthropists tend to fall into three categories: those that stay in the exploration phase with the majority of their resources, those who become frustrated with the lack of results, and those who jump for joy at the sign of small-scale results they helped facilitate, and decide to pursue bigger change at an accelerated pace. Regardless of where you might fall, your next move will require you to have a well-informed and developed strategy, with the assistance and guidance from grantees and others in the specific field. You will need to have a clear sense of what works, what strategies are being tested, form the right partnerships for your journey, and make realistic assessments of your progress when compared to the results you want to see. The more you evaluate and adjust your plan of attack, the more likely you are to see the change you are aiming for.
At this point, you will most likely be asking yourself:
- What have I learned, and how can I best invest my resources (time, money and your influence)?
- How can I improve as a funder to these causes?
- What do my partners, grantees and I truly think about my approach? Can it be improved?
Once you’re done exploring and experimenting, you may find yourself thinking you know what is best and how to distribute your resources. While many fail to solicit outside perspectives and assistance, it is of grave importance to seek feedback. You might be seeing your strategy through rose-colored glasses, where an outside perspective could help you see your strategy and vision more clearly. It is vital that you seek feedback about your efforts and strategy, as you are unlikely to hear bad news and receive constructive criticism unless you ask for it. As no philanthropist is exempt from a certain level of accountability, excellence in philanthropy must be self-imposed. It is on you to make sure your efforts are leading to the goals you have set in place.
Another challenge you’re likely to encounter, regardless of how perfect your strategy is, is to know when to stay with your current plan of attack and when to make adjustments. One way to prepare yourself is to review your decision-making process. Does it help you stay aligned with what you are trying to achieve? Does it allow you to be flexible when new information arises? If you are able to find that perfect balance of knowing when to show them and when to fold them, you will have great success as a philanthropist and will help numerous people in the process.