If You Believe in Your Philanthropy, Then Speed is of the Essence.
Do you believe your work matters? I do. You’re giving people in rural communities greater access to mental health services. You’re strengthening economic expansion in Africa. Your foundation is not only sending aid to help Ukrainians but thinking ahead toward long-term recovery.
Your philanthropy matters. If you believe that too, you should make dramatic improvements as quickly as you can.
Because every delay prevents your ability to make a difference. When we’re talking about preventing drug overdoses or reforming immigration policies, we’re talking about changing people’s lives for the better. To increase your impact, increase your speed.
I believe speed – or the lack of it – is so important in philanthropy that I devoted two entire chapters about it in my latest book, Delusional Altruism. It’s chock full of practical tips to increase the speed of your giving. But here’s one that I think is most important, and I bet it will surprise you:
Think like a mechanic.
Mechanics lift the hood to determine why a car has stalled. They change air filters because they know a dirty air filter can reduce air flow to your engine. They check tire pressure to ensure optimal fuel economy and the lowest rolling resistance. They check fluids because lubricated car parts operate better and last longer when fluids stay clean. And they do this on a maintenance schedule, because regularly making minor improvements keeps your car running smoothly.
You need to think like a mechanic. You need to regularly lift up the hood of your philanthropy to notice what’s slowing you down. Where are you wasteful, duplicative, or redundant? What are your barriers and blockages? Identify those, then systematically eliminate them. For example:
- Are you asking grantees questions you already know the answer to? Stop asking that question or create an online application that pre-populates last year’s data.
- Does your policy require five employees to sign off on all grants, regardless of whether you are awarding $500 or $50,000? Change the policy to allow one person to approve grants under $15,000.
- Is your team spending a month to prepare for quarterly board meetings? First, recognize this means 25% of your staff personnel costs annually are devoted to board meeting preparation, delivery, and recovery. Do the math. Then identify ways to reduce this time. One foundation dramatically reduced the length of board meetings and board dockets by having the board agree to the overall goals and funding amounts of its initiatives, and then letting staff and the executive director make funding decisions for individual grants without further board approval.
- Do you insist that grantees submit final reports but then learn that your team never reads them because the information is rarely useful? Eliminate the report, change the questions, or change how you learn from grantees. For example, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, a private foundation committed to helping create a vibrant New York City, realized their grantees’ reports didn’t help them understand what grantees had learned during the grant period. So, they switched to an oral reporting process. “We interview grantees at the end of the funding period, and then we do whatever writing needs to be done coming out of that conversation,” explained Lisa Pilar Cowan, Vice President.
You can help your team make some quick and easy improvements— and feel good about it—by simply asking everyone on your team to identify one aspect of their work that seems exceptionally slow, cumbersome, or unnecessary. It might be the length of time to make a grant, the number of meetings they are expected to attend, or a policy that no longer meets its intended purpose. Ask them to come up with potential solutions to speed things up. Then implement the best ideas.
Another approach: Each week or month, as a team, identify one part of your work—financial management, family meetings, site visits—and collectively identify ways you are bogged down. Are you forever having the same discussion with no resolution? Have funding decisions already been made prior to site visits, rendering them unnecessary? Brainstorm possible solutions together, and prioritize immediate next steps, including who is accountable for what and by when.
These might seem like minor improvements. But together they can add up to significant change that optimizes your speed to impact. Of course, not everyone embraces change. Some people might feel defensive. The point is not to cast blame but to continuously improve. Often improvements don’t happen because you haven’t had time to focus on them. People say, “That’s just the way things are done around here,” or your organizational environment doesn’t encourage change and continuous improvement. What made sense for your philanthropy when it first started, or even five years ago, might not make sense in today’s environment—and may even be holding you back.
Give yourself some quick wins by keeping the following in mind: Keep it simple, focus on the low-hanging fruit, make it fun, and reward people when they speed something up. Don’t try to change everything at once. And make sure whoever is in charge (donor, CEO, board chair) makes improvements too. Be a champion of change from within!
Want more suggestions to create aerodynamic funding? Be sure to buy a copy of Delusional Altruism (hint: read Chapters 3 and 10). Or feel free to schedule a call with me. I’d be happy to help you think through what’s bogging you down, what to eliminate, and how to focus on your top priorities.