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Strategic Philanthropy

30 Years: Lessons Learned in the Pursuit of Deep Social Impact

By June 12, 2019October 13th, 2021No Comments

What does it take to realize deep social impact?

Ten years ago, when TPI celebrated its 20th anniversary, we gathered 20 ideas inspired by the ambitious, thoughtful and creative donors with whom we have been privileged to work. In honor of TPI’s 30th anniversary, my colleagues and I have added 10 more ideas. We did not have all the answers then, and we still don’t – but over the past three decades, we’ve learned some lessons we’d like to share.

Vision, Focus, and Goals

1. Think big. Change requires many incremental steps – and one bold vision. Be a practical idealist. Vision inspires. Aspirational goals guide action. Short-term successes keep you in the game.
2. Find your focus. Start with what you care about most. Focus allows you to understand on what, how and with whom you can make a difference – and gives you the discipline to do it.
3. Articulate your goals. Settling on a focus area is not enough. Define what you want to accomplish, and how philanthropy can play a role.
4. Take the long view. Social change is incremental at best.
5. Don’t be discouraged by limited resources. Small grants, when targeted in highly strategic ways, can have great impact. Funders of all sizes can make a difference.


6. Look beyond the obvious. If the answers were easy, the problems facing our world would have been solved by now. Ask questions continually. Embrace new ideas and different ways of working.
7. Be strategic and opportunistic. The path to impact is rarely linear. Map your plan, but be open to lessons learned and changing conditions along the way. Don’t expect to end up in the place originally planned.
8. Invest in people. Find the best people to support, and then work in close partnership with them. Offer hands-on involvement in addition to funding.
9. Take informed leaps of faith. Be open to taking risks. Place bets on people who are highly committed and have strong leadership skills.
10. Customize. One size does not fit all. Solutions must be tailored to local needs, culture, and other unique conditions.

Learning and Engagement

11. Listen closely and read between the lines. Seek input from the community, nonprofit and public leaders, and a range of experts. Analyze in the context of additional research and data. Use it all to shape your strategies.
12. Look for partners in unusual places. Blur the lines between sectors. Be open to market-based approaches to social change. Explore the intersections between philanthropy, government and business.
13. Research the issues and communities you care about. Understand the landscape. Analyze what has been tried, what is working well, and what has not worked.
14. Don’t go it alone, and don’t reinvent the wheel. Work in partnership, and use the advice and experience of others.
15. Identify a broad range of stakeholders. It takes a village, and powerful change can happen when unlikely allies come together.

Leverage and Creative Use of Resources

16. Be creative. Philanthropic resources are modest compared to the scope of social problems. Creativity is needed to best leverage these resources.
17. Go beyond the money. Tap skills and talents, networks and relationships. Influence public policy. Explore communications strategies and social marketing.
18. Go beyond traditional grantmaking. Explore ways in which impact investing can extend your efforts.
19. Support social movements and networks. Think deeply about what is really needed to move the needle and tackle the most daunting challenges that face our world.
20. Use all the tools in the toolbox. Look to create integrated strategies with potential to catalyze systems change, influence public policy, and lead to sustainable improvements.

Reflection, Assessment, and Sharing

21. Take time for reflection and future planning. Be sure to step back every few years to look at what is being accomplished and whether there are smarter ways to work or better paths to follow.
22. Keep evaluations practical and relevant. Understand what you want to learn and how you will use it.
23. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Keep your eye on the bigger picture – your long-term vision and goals. Don’t limit evaluations to individual projects or grantee organizations.
24. Distinguish between attribution and contribution. Philanthropic support is rarely the only variable resulting in a particular outcome, but it can certainly contribute in important ways.
25. Share and learn from successes – and failures.  There remains much to be learned about social change. Strengthen the field by sharing lessons learned including successes and setbacks. Practice open source philanthropy.

Leadership and Humility

26. Be a leader and role model. Inspire peers to move up the philanthropic curve. If that doesn’t work, try a gentle nudge. Encourage dialogue. Create safe spaces for discovery. Make your efforts visible.
27. Communicate openly. Be transparent and forthcoming with your grantees, the communities in which you operate, and all other stakeholders.
28. Do no harm. Consider ways in which efforts can lead to unintended consequences.
29. Beware of hubris. While outside influences can help to spur innovation, solutions imposed by funders rarely result in real and sustainable change.
30. Be both patient and restless. Take the long view, but bring urgency to it. Change rarely occurs quickly and never without ongoing inquiry, pressure, and continuous learning.

Take a step toward more effective giving. Leave a lasting mark on a complex system or an individual life.

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