Strategic vs. Checkbook Philanthropy

What is Strategic Philanthropy?

Many people ask me what I mean when I talk about "strategic philanthropy."  There are many varying definitions for the term, including a common association with corporate philanthropy. But when it comes to personal or family philanthropy, being strategic with your philanthropic planning means to do so with design and planning backed by research, specific and measurable goals, indicators of success, all to have a measurable impact. 

I often contrast the concept with what we call "checkbook philanthropy," wherein one gives to causes ad hoc with little further communication or follow up on the part of donor or the nonprofit recipient.  Most of us give small amounts (or maybe large amounts) here and there when a friend or charity makes an appeal. An example of this would be to buy a chocolate bar from a kid outside the grocery store to support his baseball team, sending $20 in response to a charity mailing, or donating to a friend's charity walk. There is nothing wrong with this type of giving, every little bit helps (see President Obama's fundraising campaign!) but this type of giving probably won't be as transformative as one or two larger planned gifts.  Also, this type of giving can often leave a donor feeling unsatisfied as we are left with little feedback as to how our contribution really impacted the cause.  

Another fun phrase in the philanthropist's lexicon is "drive-by philanthropy," a term I borrowed from Attorney John Fraker and his podcast Family Philanthropy Radio.  He describes "drive by philanthropy" as a situation in which a family foundation or donor gives to so many causes that they are really not able to be truly engaged with any cause. 

Charity is just writing checks and not being engaged. Philanthropy, to me, is being engaged, not only with your resources but getting people and yourself really involved and doing things that haven’t been done before.
— Eli Broad

Often, I advise my clients to pick 2-3 causes to engage, as opposed to many, allowing them to make a more significant impact in these issue areas by really delving into the issue and getting to know the cause, and its stakeholders well.  I help my clients find a handful of causes that are important to them.  Together, we explore theories of change and action.  We come up with a personal mission and find partners, nonprofits and charities that align.  We really listen to the players and other important stakeholders and explore how we can best make an impact.  We ask nonprofits and charities what they really need and how our client's time, talent and treasure can be most helpful. We track the results of our client's giving, and tell the story of how their contributions made a difference.  Then we plan for the next year based on what we've learned -- what worked, and what didn't.  This is one of the benefits of strategic philanthropy and, in my opinion, the most effective philanthropy. 

Another benefit of having an annual philanthropic plan, when you get those "drive-by" requests (the ones that you give to out of guilt, rather than genuine interest), you can politely decline, explaining that you already have all your charitable funds committed for this year but you'd be happy to consider the request next year.  Then we can explore whether the cause fits in your personal charitable mission. 

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