How To Pick Up The Pace And Have Greater Impact In Philanthropy

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Every delay in our approach to philanthropy delays our ability to change lives and make an impact.

When it comes to your philanthropy, do you feel a sense of urgency? Are you striving to be a responsive investor who makes a difference through true social change? Or do you still adhere to the old-school philanthropic style of sitting around fancy boardroom tables and talking politely while poring over mounds of documentation? If you find yourself falling into the latter category, it’s time to pick up the pace!

Why should you change your approach? Because every delay prevents our ability to have an impact — and impact in philanthropy is about people’s lives. When we’re talking about ensuring access to high-quality preschools, preventing drug overdoses or reforming immigration policies, we are talking about changing people’s lives. And if we believe that what we do matters, then we should seek to make dramatic improvements as quickly as we can.

Funders often struggle with efficiency when it comes to creating new programs…or evaluating impact. Instead, focus on speed that makes a difference. Take time to regularly look at how you’re doing your work. Lift up your own hood to identify areas of duplication, waste, redundancy, barriers, blocks to decision-making and policies and procedures that no longer serve you. Then systematically determine how to eliminate or dramatically improve them! Consider the ways you or your foundation might be slowing down the effectiveness of your work. Have you found yourself guilty of any of these examples?

  • You spend six months debating whether you should engage in policy advocacy and whether it’s too risky — and end up missing a policy window. Your ability to influence legislation is gone.
  • You drag out the amount of time you spend internally to develop a new funding initiative and copyedit your request for proposals, getting you too close to the funding deadline. To make up for this lost time, you shorten the amount of time you give grantees to apply and end up funding projects that are not well thought out and are less likely to succeed.
  • Your days are filled with back-to-back meetings and you rarely have time to think, much less plan.

Once you’ve taken the time to examine how you’re doing your work, you also have to prepare yourself and your staff for organization-wide change. Change isn’t easy for most people, and when you alter or remove the structures they rely on, you may find resistance, or at the very least frustration. You need to be clear that this isn’t about revising work habits for the sake of shaking things up; it’s about changing the dynamic of how you approach your ability to make a true impact. What made sense for your foundation when it first started, or even five years ago, might not make sense in today’s environment — and may even be holding you back.

If you’re ready for high-impact philanthropy, you can start speeding up your work as an organization by focusing on two things:

1. Get started on change. Making an organizational shift can be daunting, whether you’re a small funder with minimal staff or a large foundation with an ever-growing organizational chart. Don’t try to change everything at once. Give yourself some quick wins by following three steps: keep it simple, focus on the low-hanging fruit and make it fun and rewarding.

You can help your team make some quick, easy strides — and feel good about it — by doing any of the following:

  • Ask everyone on your team to identify one aspect of their work that seems exceptionally slow, cumbersome or unnecessary. It might be reporting processes, length of time to make a grant, time used to prepare for board meetings or the number of meetings. Then ask them to come up with potential solutions to speed things up.
  • Each week or month, identify one department and collectively brainstorm areas of bureaucracy, slow pace, duplication or waste. Brainstorm possible solutions together and then prioritize immediate next steps, including who is accountable for what and by when.
  • Consider rewarding people, particularly in teams, when they come up with a creative solution or idea to “cure” areas of duplication or bureaucracy. Incentives are motivating.

It’s critical that the CEO model this self-evaluation. Culture change is not about blame. We all can improve our work processes.

2. Reassess your goals and how you achieve them. When it comes to speeding up the larger work of your organization, there are several possible approaches. The most important thing is to give yourself the space to think deeply about your work. This is not about quick fixes. Instead, it’s about redefining the way you accomplish your mission.

  • First, identify how you define success and work backward on how you can achieve it. The goal is to make dramatic improvements quickly, not sluggish and incremental change. For example, maybe your foundation gives out a slew of $5,000 grants each year and every grant requires a full proposal and five-step review process, including site visits. Is this the best way for you to invest in the issue? Focus on what you’re trying to accomplish with your philanthropic investments, and what the best approach is to help you get there. It’s not about the greatest potential for process — it’s about the greatest potential for success.
  • Second, step back and start over. Think about how you would create the work if it were built today from the ground up. What would be different? It might be your program area, your legal department, your professional development strategy or your entire foundation. Whatever it is, if you started today from scratch, what would you want in place? For example, you might dream of creating an app that would allow grantees to track the progress of their application and allow your staff to make funding decisions on the run while they’re at various conferences or meetings. This approach allows you to let go of all the baggage of your current processes and start fresh. Solicit input from everyone on staff. The goal is to create really different approaches to your work.
  • Third, allow for course corrections along the way. Don’t focus on plotting the perfect course at the beginning. Instead, give yourself the chance to make effective changes. If an approach isn’t working, take the time to adjust. One strategy that can work well is tracking time. Have yourself, your team or everyone in your foundation spend some time tracking all of their activities and how much time they’re taking, then analyze that information to see what needs to change for effectiveness.

Philanthropy can be frustrating when things take too long to get moving. By taking a step back (or two or three) and analyzing what is really consuming all our time and energy, we can identify the necessary changes we need to make to pick up our pace. Yes, this up-front work may actually take time in the beginning, but the reward is that you can zero in on the approaches that hold you back over the long term. In other words, go slow for a moment of internal reflection so you can go fast in the long run.

Additional Reading:

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.

© 2019 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for 20 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers three years in a row. 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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