Moving towards strategic family philanthropy


Ellen Remmer

This is the second post in a series by Ellen Remmer on strategic family philanthropy. Read her first post, Strategic family philanthropy – an oxymoron?

I’m a big believer in strategic philanthropy; again, stemming from my own experience moving from chequebook giving to thoughtful, focused strategic philanthropy, but also because I’m an unabashed idealist who truly believes that thoughtful, smart giving can have a disproportionate impact on society.

What is strategic philanthropy? Paul Yvisaker may have first coined it when he spoke about three roles in philanthropy: charity, patronage and strategic giving – ‘finding systemic solutions to underlying causes’.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy, a think-tank on giving, says it’s all about giving with specific outcomes/goals in mind and having a sense of how your giving will help achieve those goals – a theory of change.

But let me give you an example; let’s make it concrete.

One of my favorite clients is a family foundation that didn’t start out as very strategic.  There were three branches, three trustees and naturally the foundation’s giving focused on three different areas. Today, that foundation focuses nearly all its giving on changing the trajectory of lives for children of incarcerated parents. It supports a portfolio of programmes in two geographic areas, many of which are direct service groups that help parents and kids stay connected during incarceration, reconnect and build their lives together afterwards, and educate individuals in this tough population about parenting skills. The foundation also supports pilot models for alternatives to incarceration and works in collaboration with other funders to change systems and policies – all of which is geared towards breaking the cycle of failure that too often repeats itself with children whose role models are in the criminal justice system.

That is an example of what strategic philanthropy can be, but how strategic philanthropy develops and manifests itself can be very different. We do, however, know what is not strategic giving: throwing money out there, spreading it around and hoping it has an impact. Despite not having a clear definition or standard track, I’ve seen some commonalities in working with donors. Strategic philanthropy often includes:

Outcomes and goals

  • There are often goals and a vision of what a family is trying to achieve. If they are successful, this is what may be different: kids of incarcerated parents will feel loved and given opportunities for a positive future; everyone in a community will be touched by the power of the arts; maternal mortality will be immaterial; the arctic ice cap melting will slow.


  • There is generally a certain amount of focus. If a donor tries to spread herself too thin, she cannot do anything well; strategic givers tighten the focus to a narrow set of places, issues or populations.

Theory of change

  • The strategic giver understands the context in which she is working.  She does research on what others before her found works, meets the other funders, knows what government is doing, and so is aware of some serious gaps and opportunities and develops a theory about how her giving will contribute to the vision of success she seeks.
  • Peter Frumkin, in his work on strategic giving says there are essentially five theories of change:
  1. Focus on individuals – fund scholarships, leadership programmes, sabbaticals or training teachers, because change comes through individuals.
  2. Focus on organizations – build organizational capacity, fund programs run by organizations, and invest in successful start-up organizations.
  3. Networks matter – connect individuals or organizations within and across fields; build relationships, share best practices, coordinate services, mobilize for advocacy.
  4. Use politics – make change through stimulating voter or civic engagement or supporting advocates. This is where you get scale.
  5. Make change through ideas and innovation – fund research or pilot programmes. Many argue that this is the unique role of philanthropy – to innovate. With far fewer dollars than the government or market, but also with far fewer constraints, the sector can and should take risks, experiment and be willing to make some mistakes. Follow Winston Churchill’s wisdom: ‘success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’.

More than money

  • The strategic giver goes way beyond writing a cheque. He thinks carefully about who, what, and where to target the cheque to. He is often hands-on and engaged; he knows that while the money is certainly important, you can make it run that many more miles by what you add to it: forging critical connections, providing wisdom and providing technical skills.

If you’re not doing all of this, don’t worry. TPI’s founder, Peter Karoff, formulated something he called the Philanthropic Curve early on in TPI’s history.

What it suggests is that there is an arc to the development of strategic givers.

  • Level 1 – you become a donor. You were asked, motivated or inspired to give.
  • Level 2 – you get organized. You make more and more gifts; you get tired of going through the drill during the last week of December so you decide to set up a donor-advised fund or even a foundation.
  • Level 3 – you become more strategic. Either through frustration at not knowing the impact of your gifts, or because you have too many, or because you are inspired to think bigger or solve a problem, you start to become strategic.
  • Level 4 – focus on issues and results. You ask for more accountability. You become increasingly focused on issues and results; you help nonprofit organizations grow, and perhaps you establish new programmes or organizations that fill a gap in an important area.
  • Level 5 – your philanthropy is leveraged. You recognize that your gifts could have a much greater impact if you collaborated with others. You seek and find ways to leverage your own resources through research, advocacy to government and networks of other donors – and through collaboration with all the sectors.
  • Level 6 – high impact and congruence. Your effort, your interests, and your values are aligned. Philanthropy is among the most satisfying and exciting things you do.

Your giving can fall anywhere along this spectrum because there are rewards at all levels, but when family philanthropy and strategic philanthropy come together it can be an extraordinary triple win; for individuals, for family and for society.

Ellen Remmer is managing partner of The Philanthropic Initiative

Tagged in: Family philanthropy Strategic giving theory of change

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