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Strategic Philanthropy

A Shared Definition of Strategic Philanthropy

If I had to point to one recommendation for funders of all types, it would be Albert Einstein’s advice on curiosity. In his words, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”

No matter what kind of funder you are – corporate, family, foundation, individual – or what values and passions motivate you to give, there are always opportunities to learn more, rethink approaches, and ultimately, achieve greater impact. How you think about goals and strategies, how you engage diverse perspectives, and how open you are to thinking differently are just some of the variables that will shape your philanthropy. These are grand and yet critical issues for each of us to tackle.

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Denver Frederick for his podcast, The Business of Giving. His expertise and insights from a long career in nonprofit and philanthropic leadership around health, cultural, and civic issues, and a stint as a professor at NYU’s School of Fundraising Management, shine through in his conversations with nonprofit and philanthropic organization leaders. Our conversation was wide-ranging and addressed a number of core issues facing the field of philanthropy as we grapple with questions on how to do more and better in the world today.

Defining Strategic Philanthropy

As we talked about how funders can establish a firm footing for maximum impact and work their way up the TPI Philanthropic Curve, Denver raised an important question that is at the core of how funders move forward both individually and together: the definition of strategic philanthropy.

As he said, “Strategic philanthropy, which has pretty much been a bellwether for this sector for many years, has been under a lot of critique of late. And part of that is that people have looked at it as maybe being a little too inflexible, opaque. And often, they believe that it fails to adequately support the diverse communities that they’re meant to serve.”

These critiques are legitimate. Some define strategic philanthropy to mean a very prescriptive approach, describing situations where donors try to figure out solutions themselves and then impose them on nonprofit organizations, on communities, or on others who are working on change on the ground. These donors think they are being strategic, but I would disagree.

At TPI, we define strategic philanthropy in a way that goes back decades. Paul Ylvisaker, a wise educator and foundation executive, defined philanthropy as finding systemic solutions to underlying causes of poverty and other social ills. As I shared with Denver, we continue to believe that philanthropy has a critical role to play as society’s risk capital. Being strategic starts with articulating a clear vision and goals. To move from goals to effective strategies, strategic funders listen to, learn from, and engage with people with all different perspectives on the issues the funder cares about, and then use this input to inform their philanthropic strategies. Those strategies, in the best of situations, are not prescriptive. They build on the expertise, wisdom, and knowledge of those who are experiencing the direct impact of systemic and structural barriers, community leaders, experts, and others. The best strategies may also incorporate new ideas, rooted in curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and the humility to know that the solutions to most issues are far from simple. We all know that if the answers were easy, we would have solved these problems long ago.

I would invite the entire philanthropic community to return to this definition of strategic philanthropy. To achieve all we need to in the months and years ahead, it is more important than ever for funders to be clear on what they hope to accomplish, and to be intentional in working towards those goals in ways that are thoughtful and strategic.

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