Billionaire Jeff Bezos’s recent Tweet for suggestions about how to give some of his fortune away has inspired several media stories, including commentary and an open letter to Jeff Bezos about focusing on immediate suffering vs. creating a long-term strategy. Where, how and in what a philanthropist chooses to invest his or her philanthropic capital are all extremely important decisions. For someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, like Bezos, those decisions will no doubt reflect some new and different thinking. For the field of philanthropy, where many giving practices are deeply entrenched and sometimes outdated, “new and different” can be a very good thing.
But no matter where, how or for how long Bezos chooses to be charitable, and no matter whether his philanthropy is wildly unconventional or follows a more traditional path, I hope that he bears in mind these five rules of philanthropy that will help ensure the greatest impact for his investment.
1. Avoid the trap of what I call “delusional altruism.” This happens when a philanthropic investor truly wishes to make a difference but gets in his or her own way by creating needless internal or external barriers. For example, a funder may decide they’re saving time and avoiding complexity by asking grantees to submit requests in 140 characters on Twitter. In reality, they are ignoring the potential of grantees who don’t have Twitter accounts and discounting the expertise of those who do. Internally, that same funder may wish to be thorough and fair by asking a small program staff to follow up on every promising Tweet by requesting a full grant proposal and a site visit. But in reality, a follow-up phone call would yield enough information to thin the field to a manageable number of grantee candidates and save hours of time for both funder staff and hopeful nonprofits.
2. Focus on transformations. When you get right down to it, meeting almost every human need involves some sort of system. In some cases, those systems are huge, such as healthcare. In others, they are small, such as the way a dispatcher in a rural county prioritizes EMS calls. Both impact whether a patient in need goes to the emergency room. Even if a funder wants to address immediate needs, as Bezos’s tweet suggests, there are ways to do so that can transform a system surrounding that need. In the case of homelessness, for example, a funder could provide support for much-needed emergency shelters. That meets an incredibly valid immediate need, but it doesn’t change the landscape. The funder might also transform the shelter system by funding technology to quickly locate available beds, or wraparound services to help stabilize homeless individuals or even partnerships with affordable housing organizations that move the homeless into permanent housing. And of course, the funder might also address the systems that cause homelessness in the first place.
3. Create thoughtful, efficient, optimized processes. No matter how freethinking or freewheeling a philanthropist may be, grantmaking always comes down to some sort of process . The more clear, consistent and uncluttered that process is, the easier it becomes for potential grantee partners to build the trusting relationships necessary to create the kinds of transformations described above. On the flip side, constant changes in processes leave potential grantees, and often internal staff, scratching their heads.
4. Consider what’s “best” about a best practice. In many cases, funders who create new philanthropies are eager to borrow the best practices from peers or foundations that they admire. While there is nothing wrong with learning from best practices, not every practice will apply to every philanthropic endeavor. Instead, I encourage funders to look for the intersections of best practice and common sense. For example, a large foundation with many staff may conduct its own research to inform its decisions, but this task would overwhelm a new, smaller entity with only two staff. In this case, outsourcing the research or using existing data would be the commonsense solution to the best practice of research-driven decision making.
5. Learn constantly and consistently. Every philanthropist should remember to learn as they go, from both their own experiences and the experiences of others. Further, I believe that savvy philanthropists learn intentionally and consistently, building time into their schedules and processes for research and reflection and always asking, “What can we learn from this?” Learning doesn’t have to be onerous or complicated — it can even take the form of ongoing conversations. The key is to make sure those conversations happen regularly and purposefully.
Bezos and many other incredibly intelligent people like him are poised to do great things to improve the lives of others and the society we all share. By adopting these five rules early in their philanthropic endeavors, they can ensure maximum, lasting impact.
This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.com.
© 2017 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.
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July 18, 2017 – Forum of Regional Association of Grantmakers Annual Conference (San Francisco, CA)
September 7, 2017 – Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers
September 19, 2017 – National Center for Family Philanthropy webinar
September 27, 2017 – Philanthropy West Virginia Annual Conference
October 16, 2017 – CONNECT Conference, Exponent Philanthropy, Denver
October 19, 2017 – National Forum on Family Philanthropy
October 19, 2017 – National Forum on Family Philanthropy