Summer Downtime Provides Private Foundations with an Opportunity to Learn, Develop Skills, and Prepare for Year-End


John Oddy and Elizabeth Wong


It’s widely accepted in the world of philanthropy that foundation work will slow to a crawl in August. We travel, we play golf, and we enjoy time with family. We take a necessary hiatus from the frenzied pace of work and the business of grantmaking. It’s important to recharge our batteries because, all too soon, we’ll again be seated around the boardroom table, voting on grantees and grants, and staring down the barrel of a December 31st deadline.

Each year, Foundation Source analyzes its clients’ grantmaking patterns, and the numbers confirm what we already know: Foundation giving is at its lowest around August and highest at year-end [see this chart]. And while this lull in giving will undoubtedly increase the blood pressure of many fundraising professionals, we have seen how grantmakers can effectively use this slow period to prepare for what is to come. In fact, summer can provide an ideal window for private foundation officers and board members to review strategies, strengthen infrastructure, and gain clarity around their grantmaking plans for the rest of the year. The overarching point here is that even if donors aren’t actively making grants mid-year, they can still use this time to be proactive about advancing philanthropic goals.

We recently outlined five easy-to-implement strategies to encourage our private foundations clients to take advantage of these remaining weeks of summer. We offer them here for you:

  1. Deepen your knowledge. Being a strategic funder requires knowledge about causes, prospective grantees, and best practices. Summertime is ideal for researching and catching up on reading.
  • Research causes and strategies: There are many online and print resources for learning about possible strategies and issue areas. Online media outlets such as Alliance and Chronicle of Philanthropy will provide an overview of the hottest topics and trends. Donors who want to learn about impact investing and other nontraditional forms of grantmaking can visit the Mission Investors Exchange Knowledge Base, or peruse the 2015 BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index to learn about the priorities of donors from different regions in the world. And, for more information about specific causes, The Foundation Center’s Issue Lab is another potential destination.
  • Due diligence for grantees:  A foundation needs to do its homework to ensure it supports organizations that will make the most effective use of its funds. For up-to-date information on nonprofit organizations around the world, foundations may want to consult GiveWell’s list of international charities, Great Nonprofits, or GuideStar.
  • Consume content: Information is readily available (online and offline) for every aspect of philanthropy. When donors are packing their bags (or loading their Kindles) for the beach, they may want to bring along a couple of helpful books to inform their philanthropy. Stanford Social Innovation Review maintains a robust list of philanthropy-related reads, and the Grantcraft blog offers a wealth of insightful reads on the practice of philanthropy.

In addition to the written word, a variety of podcasts on philanthropy edify and inform. Foundation Source’s own series, Forward Thinking, features interviews with trailblazing entrepreneurs and next-generation philanthropists who are transforming the sector with inspiring ideas and innovative strategies. Another great podcast is the TED Radio Hour, which presents fascinating ideas based on the thought-provoking series of TED talks. You might also try running a search on the word “philanthropy” on the TED Talks website.

  1. Combine philanthropy with Fun. Many philanthropically minded families use summer outings and vacation excursions as opportunities to advance their foundation work while enjoying some recreation. Consider incorporating volunteer activities or research into your summer plans. Some of these associated expenses might be eligible for reimbursement by the foundation as well. Some suggestions:
  • Volunteer: Get involved with a local environmental restoration project, or a summer camp.
  • Tour: Explore your local parks and nature conservancies, and learn more about their needs.
  • Travel: Build a family vacation around grantee site visits and volunteer opportunities.
  • Convene: Take advantage of a summer gathering to develop marching orders for the latter half of the year. One hour out of your vacation time could save dozens of hours of scrambling at year-end.
  1. CULTIVATE YOUR BOARD. Summer can be the perfect time to fill gaps on the foundation’s board, possibly looking beyond the family to recruit new members with requisite expertise. Board member selection is about identifying someone in your extended network whom you want to bring into the fold. It requires trust and a strong rapport. Donors can use the slower summer months to schedule a golf outing or meet for coffee to get to know possible candidates and gauge their interest. This article discusses factors to consider when considering non-family members for board service, and best practices to ensure their effective involvement once elected.
  1. Ask the big questions. Reflect on the strategic direction of the foundation and evaluate its impact by asking questions such as, “What could we be doing differently?” and, “Is it time to develop a more focused mission?” We encourage our clients to set at least one ambitious goal at the beginning of the year, such as learning about a new issue area or expanding one’s circle of grantees. In summer we have the chance to revisit those goals and determine what needs to happen in order to achieve them.
  1. MAKE SOME GRANTS! Just because summer is traditionally a slower time of year for grantmaking does not mean foundations can’t be more active. In the same manner that we might pay estimated taxes each year to avoid lump payments at year-end, donors should consider pacing grantmaking throughout the year. There are plenty of worthy nonprofits, with constituents that need help year round, that would appreciate receiving support well in advance of the holiday giving season.

John Oddy is senior philanthropic director with Foundation Source, and Elizabeth Wong is philanthropic director.

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