Shaping the philanthropy of the future


Strategic Philanthropy

Meg Lassar

Meg Lassar

Last month, I had the opportunity to hear David La Piana, founder of La Piana Consulting (a US-based firm dedicated to strengthening non-profits and foundations), speak to our regional association of grantmakers about the five inter-related trends shaping the non-profit sector: demographic and generational shifts in leadership, advances in technology and social media, the growth of networks, a rise in civic engagement, and the blurring of sector lines. He documents these trends in his November 2009 monograph Convergence, which not only sets the stage for the new realities facing non-profits but also advises funders on how they can support non-profits’ efforts to adapt to them. On this point, La Piana emphatically states, ‘funders must depart from traditional funding models’.

As a professional who works with both individual donors and family foundations to implement effective and meaningful giving strategies, I considered these words in the context of how they might shape the philanthropic advising profession and how they might inform our understanding of the best practices we impart to our clients.

For donor advisers, La Piana’s mandate means that we must help clients to move away from some of the more inefficient grantmaking procedures that have become standard industry practice over the years. For example, we as advisers can work with donors to shorten the time lags between grant application and approval, integrate the latest technology to facilitate client learning, engage multiple stakeholders in grant award decision-making, and help donors to participate in strategic thinking alongside grantees rather than in a ‘top down’ manner.

In addition, as donors increasingly experiment with non-traditional mission-related investments, advisers must be capable of assisting them in implementing the non-grant strategies (such as PRIs) that will advance non-profits’ ability to adjust to the demographic, technological, social and cultural transformations that will play out in the coming years. Going beyond the grant will allow clients the flexibility to be innovative in their responses to organizations’ greatest needs.

Making our services relevant to the younger generation of philanthropists will require us to take, in La Piana’s words, a ‘sector-agnostic’ approach, as lines between the corporate, government and non-profit sectors become increasingly blurred. Younger donors who are more focused on the end results of their giving, as opposed to the means by which they give, will want to leverage their charitable dollars by collaborating with the most knowledgeable and capable actors, regardless of the sectors in which they typically operate. We as advisers can help them to think creatively about partnerships they might form in order to find the most efficient means by which to address their philanthropic priorities.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that La Piana’s trends forecast poses to advisers − whose job it is to develop successful and effective donor giving strategies − is to encourage donors to become more tolerant of risk and more transparent about failure. We must become comfortable with the idea of mistake-making as progress; that is, as a necessary step in our clients’ development as strategic donors. Despite advisers’ inherent interest in protecting their clients’ bottom lines, stimulating donors’ appetites for calculated risk will ultimately generate greater returns in terms of lives changed and problems solved.

Meg Lassar is an analyst with Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd, a philanthropic advisory practice based in Chicago serving clients worldwide. Email


Tagged in: David La Piana Philanthropy advice Strategic grantmaking

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