Steps in the strategic journey


Ellen Remmer

Whether you are an advisor working to help a donor achieve more or you are a donor interested in better positioning yourself to move up the philanthropic curve, understanding the stages along the journey to more strategic giving can be quite valuable. Last month, I wrote The Development of the Donor: Stages in the Continuum – a look at the stages that many donors go through in becoming more strategic givers. But what makes a donor more or less likely to progress from one state to the next? And how can one tell when a donor is ready to take (or be nudged to take) that next step? In this post, I identify what The Philanthropic Initiative has seen – through our advising and our research – as common precursors or indicators of readiness to progress.

Getting to ‘readiness’

What are the precursors to readiness?  What factors precondition the
new donor to think and act strategically?

  • A thoughtful and inquiring personality is a prerequisite for any donor with the potential to be strategic.  The most strategic donors are lifelong
  • Comfort with wealth is important, including taking time to explore the meaning of wealth in one’s life and sorting out the wealth allocation decision (how much to self, kids and society).  While the search for meaning in life transcends affluence, we find that wealth can actually get in the way.
    However, those who develop a comfort with wealth and choose to use it to support a higher purpose/philanthropy are poised to become strategic givers.
  • A value system that supports philanthropy and giving back, which may come from family/legacy, religion, experience and social norms, is a contributing factor. Exposure to critical issues facing society through personal experience, the media, etc. is one way that donors find the passion and energy to proactively address social issues.
  • Work and life experience that required a strategic perspective will incline a donor to use a similar approach in their giving.

Moving from ‘readiness’ to ‘getting it’

Once in a readiness mode, a number of experiences, events and influences can help the donor recognize the potential of strategic philanthropy and become inspired to do something different. When working with clients, TPI finds that the presence of these factors offers opportunities for donors to move from ‘readiness’ to ‘getting it’.

  • Feeling out of control of one’s giving.  For some this arises out of a
    frustration with the process of going through the pile of solicitations on December 31st.  For others it may come out of a bad experience with the ‘same old’ traditional giving relationships or a feeling of being ‘handled’ by solicitors.  These experiences often trigger a donor to reflect on his/her giving and decide to take charge of it and do something different.
  • Feeling frustrated or dissatisfied about the outcome of one’s gifts.  The donor
    may have a dawning realization that s/he has no grasp of where all the money is going and whether it is making any difference.
  • Finding a passion, becoming inspired and receiving ‘permission’ (or a nudge) to pursue this passion through philanthropy (through role models, counselors, etc.)
  • A realization – whether slowly creeping or sudden – and perhaps even guilt, that the donor could be doing so much more.  This realization may arise from all the factors cited earlier or possibly one very positive experience with giving.
  • Developing an investor mentality in giving. It is very empowering when donors realize that their money can matter and that they are making investments in society that can yield social return.

Moving from ‘getting it’ to ‘in action’

Understanding the opportunity of strategic philanthropy is the precursor to making the time and commitment to actually following through with strategic philanthropy. Some of the factors that enable donors to ‘walk the talk’ are the following:

  • Sorting out and organizing one’s varied giving – e.g. sequestering
    the obligatory giving
    and focusing on the giving that is driven by passion
    and purpose.
  • Transforming the abstract into the concrete – e.g. when the proposal on paper comes alive during a site visit, or when the dynamic social entrepreneur is in the room with the donor.
  • Overcoming ‘overwhelm’ – e.g. when donors have access to tools, models and resources that make the process manageable and clear. For example, the donor does research to identify the critical needs and gaps in an issue area, or learns about the usefulness of an RFP process.
  • Ownership of and commitment to the giving process – momentum builds
    once a donor dives into the creation of a strategic giving program.

Moving from ‘in action’ to ‘even more’

Finally, the donor who becomes engaged in strategic philanthropy is more likely to become deeply strategic – and explore approaches based on a theory of change – when influenced by the following.

  • Developing a sense of stewardship over the philanthropic funds, or as one client called it ‘being a guardian of wealth’.  This is a continuation of the realization that the donor could be doing more; but focus in this case is on the responsibility to do more.  It may grow out of experiences with peers,
    grantees, role models, etc.
  • Growing understanding and sophistication about the process of measurement.  At this stage, donors have moved beyond simplistic demands for quantitative results to in-depth exploration with grantees and a desire to better understand the larger context of their philanthropy in society.  This is a process that can fundamentally change the relationship between the donor and his/her philanthropy.
  • Involvement in an in-depth learning experience, such as a funding collaborative, a formal donor education program, or a mentor relationship, etc. These experiences may also be helpful at the ‘getting it’ and ‘in action’ stages, but at this point they offer the opportunity to really enrich the giving experience and provide tools and resources to do more.
  • Finally figuring out what ‘donor engagement’ means and how to do this in a
    way that works for the donor.  This may mean addressing the time issue and what it takes to develop a productive and balanced donor/grantee relationship.
  • Receiving credible information about what works, through such avenues as
    issue focused networks and research reports
  • Exposure to non-traditional approaches beyond grantmaking, such as playing the convening role, providing technical assistance, or making loans. The
    creative potential of philanthropy becomes limitless.

Every donor is different and his/her progression towards strategic giving is impossible to predict.  However, we believe the journey to each stage is just as important as the arrival.

Ellen Remmer is CEO and president of The Philanthropic Initiative

Tagged in: Donor development Strategic giving

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