5 Back-to-School Lessons for Philanthropists


Beautiful girl in uniform with backpack smiling at youIt’s back-to-school time across most of the country, and my colleagues and I have all been trading stories of the build up to that first big day. Whether it’s pre-K or high school, there’s always something special about starting out on a new year. New clothes, fresh supplies, seeing old friends and making new ones — all of these things combine to create that magical sense of anticipation, excitement and butterflies that makes the moment memorable and can provide a positive launching pad for the entire year-long experience.

I’ve also found that same sense of excitement and anticipation in my work with funders who are launching a new initiative or an entirely new philanthropy. There is the same sense of expectation and nervousness (and hopefully a new wardrobe addition) that makes this beginning time special. Here are five lessons from the back-to-school flurry that can serve us well:

  1. Shop early, but not exhaustively. Knowing what you’ll need in terms of resources and securing it before you launch a philanthropic initiative is critical. But you should also understand that there will be unanticipated needs once your work begins. (Remember when you showed up to class with a spiral notebook only to find out that you had to have a 3-ring binder?) Maybe your initiative will become more complex than you anticipate, and you’ll need to onboard new partners or support. Perhaps you’ll discover new opportunities for evaluation, storytelling, or advocacy that will add impact as you go along. No matter how well you prepare, shopping after the start date is a fact of life, so be sure to set some time and resources aside for that purpose.
  1. Compare your course schedule with friends. No one starts the first day of school in a vacuum, so it always helps to know which classes you’ll be taking with friends and which ones you’ll have on your own. No one makes grants in a vacuum either. Well before you launch your initiative, find out who else is working in the same area. How could you leverage one another’s work? Where might you overlap? In addition to understanding how you can strengthen your own work, you’ll avoid stepping on toes with your launch and alienating potential allies and partners.
  1. Layout out your wardrobe the night before. In high school, you were concerned about what you look says about you. For a grantmaking initiative, it’s what your messaging says. In either case, deciding how you want to present yourself and making sure all the pieces are in place and ready to work together before the big day is a must. Before you launch your initiative, consider the tools you’ll need to promote it — fact sheets, a website, a mobile app, a network of ambassadors, etc. Then make sure everything and everyone is prepped and ready to work it!
  1. Get a good night’s sleep. Starting a school day bleary-eyed is never a good idea. Likewise, launching a new initiative when you’re still recovering from another program or event can sap your energy and undermine your focus. To outsiders, it also can make you appear less enthusiastic, tuned in or sincere about your work. When considering the timing of a new initiative, make sure it doesn’t overlap too much with other demands, so you can put your best foot – and your brightest mind – forward when your new work gets rolling.
  1. It’s still cool to be excited. As adults and funders, sometimes we make an effort to curb our enthusiasm about our work in the name of professionalism or propriety. We strive to keep our excitement under wraps or mask our anticipation because, after all, we’re not school children any more. We’re realistic adults who are so well-prepared and confident that we’ve no need for excitement. But how boring is that? Excitement and enthusiasm are contagious – and motivating for those around us. We can convey our excitement and still be seen as capable, effective grantmakers with whom others will want to work.

As parents, why do we go through all this planning and promote all this excitement? Because we know that a great first day of school can set the tone for an entire year. As funders, why don’t we do the same? Think about the next “big day” coming up for your work. What can you do now to prepare that will make it all the more successful? What resources will you need? Who else should you work with? What tools will need to be in place to communicate about it? What will be the best timing for beginning it? And how can you leverage your own excitement to engage others?

Next week as my twins start kindergarten and my stepdaughter starts graduate school, I’ll be asking myself these questions with triple emphasis!


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a nationally recognized philanthropy consultant. If you are having “back to school” panic and need expert advice to meet your 2015 goals or plan for 2016, contact her at kris@putnam-consulting.com. For more tips on grantmaking read her articles, listen to her Smart Philanthropy podcasts or sign up for her Philanthropy411 blog.


© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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