Journey to impact: an open letter to emerging philanthropists

Fay Twersky

We are in many respects entering a golden age of philanthropy. Inspired by peers, colleagues, friends and family, new philanthropists are emerging in record numbers. They have different interests and passions, but they all want to make an impact with their philanthropic gifts. This is an open letter to emerging philanthropists about the journey to impact – to long-term sustainable change – a journey beginning with the heart, moving to the head and, ultimately, achieving results on the ground.

Begin with the heart
There are so many challenges in our world: poverty, disease, war, poor education, human trafficking, child abuse, discrimination, hunger, homelessness, mental illness – the list goes on. As a philanthropist, when you begin the journey to impact, first look into your heart and find the issues that are the most meaningful to you. What problems are you most passionate about solving? There is no one right beginning, no one root cause for humanity’s ills.

When you focus on what matters most to you, those issues for which you have deep commitment and conviction, you are more likely to sustain your attention, your passion, your sense of urgency and your creativity. You are more likely to persevere and to achieve results.

Enduring passions find ongoing strategic expression

Bill and Flora Hewlett’s passions included the environment of the American West, education, population and reproductive rights, and the performing arts as well as contributing to the local community where the Hewlett Packard company thrived. Almost 50 years later, these passions endure and find expression in new ways. The foundation’s environment programme continues to protect ecosystems in the American West and also now focuses on mitigating catastrophic climate change. The population programme continues to focus on reproductive rights and is now linked to related concerns in global development.

Conduct rigorous and dispassionate analysis
New philanthropists have the power to bring the fresh perspective and energy needed to address seemingly intractable problems. But before diving in to how to make a difference, take time to analyse the problem you hope to solve. What is known about it? Who is most affected? What are others doing? Is there evidence about what has succeeded in the past and what has failed and why? What are the opportunities to make a difference and what is the best leverage for doing so? Who are the best players working to solve the problem? And who has the most creative ideas?

During this period of analysis, small ‘do-no-harm learning grants’ can sometimes help you enter a space. These are grants that support practitioner time while you learn from them and find a place where you want to contribute. Learning from the wisdom and experience of others will accelerate your progress towards achieving results. Know the ‘market’ you are entering.

Clarity of problem often leads to clarity of solution

When the Gates Foundation’s Pacific Northwest team first set out to address concerns of family homelessness in the Puget Sound area, they set a target of building 1,500 units of transitional housing for homeless families to help those families stabilize their lives. After six years, the team had met the goal of building 1,500 housing units, and more than 2,200 families had been helped by them, but during that time the problem of family homelessness in the Puget Sound had significantly worsened. As the team refreshed their strategy for the next seven years, they put the problem of family homelessness at the centre of their analysis and moved from an almost exclusively bricks-and-mortar strategy to a multi-faceted strategy designed to end family homelessness.

Make strategic choices and set targets for progress
Once you are clear on the problem and context, it is time to make choices about how to use your resources to make a difference. This is one of the creative parts of the planning process: the time when you articulate your ‘theory of change’ – which is essentially your articulation of how the money you give will work to solve the problem. What types of interventions, innovations or programmes will you support, over what period of time, and with what expected results? Setting measurable targets is helpful because it reveals assumptions and sharpens thinking about what change you are expecting and how and when you believe it will happen. This process produces the initial blueprint both for implementing grantmaking and for measuring progress.

Consider your role
When developing your approach to funding, consider also the role that you and your foundation are prepared to play. Do you want to be an outspoken leader or play more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes role? Do you want to be an advocate, funding a certain point of view on a set of issues, or maintain a neutral posture? Do you want to be a generator of knowledge that others can use to make better decisions? These roles are not necessarily mutually exclusive but in your journey to impact, be mindful that the roles you play are as important as the grants you give.

Using neutrality as leverage

Philanthropists can use their neutrality as leverage in a high stakes environment. By carefully and respectfully maintaining a non-political posture, the Rothschild Family Foundation (Yad Hanadiv) is a trusted, independent funder in Israel. The foundation plays a key role in partnering with both the government and the Arab community to advance Arab employment. The foundation is not only bringing significant funding but it is shaping that funding to support Arab leadership, build necessary non-profit infrastructure and create robust measurement systems and feedback loops. While still a complex and risky undertaking, this public initiative would certainly not have had the same likelihood of success without the foundation’s trusted imprimatur and quiet strategic leadership.

Implement, measure, learn and adjust
Then comes the interesting, challenging and gratifying work of implementing, learning and adapting. Measurement is a key part of this progression. Solving social problems is not easy and it helps to have the courage to fail. What is important is to ‘fail well’ – to learn from what didn’t go well or as expected, and to make necessary course corrections.

When approaching the question of measurement, carefully consider the purpose. Why are you measuring? I have a simple framework for thinking about four purposes of measurement.

  • Accountability To determine if we and those we support are doing what we said we would.
  • Informing grantee practice and decision-making To help those we support learn and become higher-performing.
  • Informing funder practice and decision-making To help funders test assumptions about approaches for achieving results and support course corrections.
  • Informing the field To generate knowledge about what does and does not work and why, and to have that knowledge inform and shape policy and practice more broadly. This measurement is costly and long-term – typically designed with a high degree of rigour to achieve more certainty about the results.

All of these purposes are valid; they are not mutually exclusive, but they do all carry different burdens. The key is to design all measurement with action and decisions in mind and to ask: ‘How and when will we or others use this information?’ By anticipating information needs, you are more likely to design and commission measurement that will be useful and used. It is all too common in the sector for data to be requested and evaluations commissioned without a clear purpose, and then shelved without generating useful insights. The problem analysis and target setting for your theory of change should be useful in setting meaningful benchmarks for progress. We do not have the same type of ubiquitous industry benchmarks as in business, but there are established benchmarks in some fields and the development of common performance measures is a currently a fertile area of development in the non-profit sector.

When collaborating with other funders, seek also to collaborate on common measurement. This will not only reduce the cost of data collection and analysis but also increase the utility. Remember, too, when asking grantees for data or to participate in an evaluation, honour the effort by providing dedicated support. For many non-profits, measurement is a woefully underfunded activity and this investment pays off both with better grantee engagement and with higher quality data.

Good measurement begins with questions. Clear, precise questions about what you want to learn increase the odds of receiving helpful answers. What are you curious about? What do you want to know three years from now to help inform the next set of decisions? If you have strongly held beliefs about an issue or an approach such that measurement is not likely to influence your thinking, then you may not want to invest time and resources in measurement. But sometimes when one challenges strongly held beliefs, there are unexpected gifts of insight, helping you see old problems in new ways and accelerate your progress for achieving results.

In sum …
In the end, the journey to impact is indeed a journey. It is most fruitful when pursued with a warm heart and a hard head.

Fay Twersky is currently a senior fellow at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation. She previously served as the Director of Impact Planning and Improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Email


Comments (1)

Bridget Uchendu

I read this article and was impressed, it was such an encouraging article for those that has passion to help Others. Am new here in Frankfurt germany, i have a women project i've been battling with from Italy to Sweden for quite some years now, but have not been able to realise this dream. I have gone through a lot both in life and in marriage, i can't wait to share my life experience with other women. I hate to see women being maltreated, i hate to see women cry, i hate to see women struggling alone to carry family, i hate to see single woman suffering ,i want to make an impact in the life of such women both White or black. Please i need someone to guide me in this my project. My question is what are the requirements needed to register an organization here in Germany?

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