Why ‘getting your hands dirty’ can lead to more effective philanthropy


Fiona Halton


Fiona Halton

As we start 2013 the media is full of the usual articles about making life-changing decisions or finally tackling that project you’ve always put off. It’s prompted me to reflect on the last ten years at Pilotlight: what we’ve learnt from bringing together philanthropists and senior business people with small charities and how their ‘philanthropic journey’ has developed. Over 800 business leaders have given their time and money to us, helping 300 charities reach more people more effectively. And, in the process, philanthropists find they’ve developed their own giving. 

So, what are the key lessons we have learnt about effective philanthropy? Four in particular stand out: the philanthropist, as well as the charity, longs to develop their skills; philanthropists need to be clear about the difference they will make; and their giving needs to be effectively managed to achieve this difference. Finally, philanthropists help everyone by speaking out about their giving.

Most of our members have never volunteered before. Take Rick, a senior banker. Rick had had little to do with the charity sector. He became part of a talented team of business people and entrepreneurs working with a small charity that sold goods made in prison, giving the prisoners a skill and purpose. The team worked well together and the charity ended up doubling in size.

But we also know it worked for Rick. As he told me, the value of the engagement was ‘not just learning about the charity but also learning about my fellow Pilotlighters, how they think and gaining new skills’. 

Rick said what he learned at Pilotlight was more useful to him than the course he had been on to teach him board skills at Harvard. He went on to sit on three charity boards as well as heading up his own company board.

In corporate philanthropy we are seeing a real shift towards charitable engagements that give company employees an opportunity for learning and development as well as helping the charity. That learning and development increases their usefulness to charities too. They learn, for instance, to coach rather than tell. And nearly two thirds of our members encourage their colleagues or companies to change their philanthropic strategy.

The story of Charles, a brilliant city leader, who worried about whether his skills would translate and be useful to the charity, demonstrates why understanding what results you want to achieve is vital. Ensuring your skills will be managed to achieve that end matters too.

Charles lost no time in asking me how we measured results, and I went on about the difference he would make to the charities we worked with. I said that we would measure that difference from meeting to meeting.

Roll forward a year and I asked the project manager who led the engagement with the small community charity Charles and his team had worked with how it had gone. Her face clouded. ‘A brilliant team with a visionary practitioner leading the charity against huge odds. Little funding at the beginning, most of it withdrawn and a difficult chair/director relationship.’ And the result: not a huge change in a year. Some better systems but that was about it.

I dreaded meeting Charles over lunch to discuss his experience. I waited for him to say something. And eventually he did. ‘Amazing experience. I understand so much more about the way small charities work and what challenges they face. And I understand what not to do over-governance. Huge admiration for the director. When is my next charity?’. I breathed again.

But what did I learn? First, it mattered that Charles’ giving was managed by an exceptional project manager. Every step of the way she steered that team and the charity director and listened to problems from both sides and translated between two worlds to achieve what they could for the charity.

Second, I should have been clear about what the outcome of the work with the charity might be. It was wonderful for me that Charles was how he was but it has never happened again. We now ensure all the charities we work with have evaluation in place by the time they finish with Pilotlight but I make no promises on outcomes. On average our charities will have increased their turnover by 50 per cent and be helping double the number of people. But we make it clear this is an average. I set the expectation on what we can deliver, not what I think the donor wants to hear.

Finally, we need more people to speak out about their giving. A successful entrepreneur, Brian, told me no one had thanked him for the time he had given to a children’s charity. Being Brian, he was more worried about his fellow volunteers. He spoke to the charity and asked if the kids could make thank you cards. They were delighted and cards were dispatched to all four volunteers, including Brian. He has his in his office to this day and showed me. Such a thank you is now a tradition with us. Many put the picture on their office desk or mantelpiece at home. It encourages a buzz: others ask about their work with us and so begins a conversation about philanthropy.

Each lesson we learned has not only helped our members but the charity they worked with as well. We are building a community of philanthropists and researching their journey. The more we all talk about what effective giving looks like, the more likely we are to influence those who are just starting out on their own philanthropic journey.

Fiona Halton is chief executive of Pilotlight

Tagged in: Charity boards Corporate social responsibility Donor involvement volunteering

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