How To Determine Your Philanthropic Priorities


Congratulations, you’ve created your strategic plan. Now it’s time to implement it! Don’t worry, you got this. Your first implementation step is to determine your top philanthropic priorities. These are the most important things you should focus on next to implement your strategy. I’m talking about the top priorities for your entire enterprise, whether you are a private foundation, a corporate giving program, or a philanthropic family.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens in philanthropy. Many philanthropic strategic plans lay in limbo, never getting off the ground. As a result, funders waste a lot of time and money, get distracted, and delay their impact.

In my experience advising and facilitating dozens of strategic planning processes with philanthropists, the number one reason is the team never identified their top philanthropic priorities to implement their strategy. Let me show you how to do that!

Narrowing Down Your Philanthropic Priorities

You might think since your entire team was involved in strategic planning, they will know what’s most important to do next, right? Wrong. Don’t assume everyone knows the top organization-wide priorities. Here’s a little trick to find out if your team is on the same page: Ask them. After I began advising the CEO of a private foundation on strategy implementation, one of the first things I did was interview her staff. I simply asked, “What are the top three priorities for implementing the new strategy?” Guess what? I heard 23 different answers! Not 3, not 5—23!

This is quite common. When you create your strategic plan, it feels like there are a zillion things to do. Further, we all view strategy through our own lens and how it impacts our work. Naturally, each staff person had their own spin on what seemed “most” important. But you can’t focus on a zillion things at once. You can’t even focus on 23 things at once. You need to pick your top three philanthropic priorities. The most important things that need to happen next.

If your team isn’t all on the same page, how do you determine those top priorities? It depends in part on how you make decisions typically. Does the executive director decide? Do you strive for consensus? It’s probably a little bit of both. There might be a natural leader—the donor or CEO— in your philanthropy whose opinion weighs more heavily.

At the same time, if you want everyone to be involved in implementing your top priorities, it’s a good idea to involve them in determining them. Buy-in is helpful. At that private foundation, we brought the team together for the afternoon. We reviewed the list of 23 priorities and agreed it was far too many. The CEO shared what she felt was most important, and after a facilitated discussion, we landed on three philanthropic priorities. These weren’t the only things that needed to happen. They were the most important things that needed to happen next to achieve their strategic goals.

Ask Yourself 3 Key Questions

Your philanthropic priorities are the most important things you should focus on next to move your philanthropy from its current state to its desired future state, as quickly as possible. When I facilitate strategic planning with foundations, I help them determine this by asking three questions:

  1. What is the 20 percent of effort that will deliver 80 percent of your results? For example, if you are launching a new grantmaking initiative, the 20 percent of effort that will deliver the most results might be hiring someone to manage the initiative. “Hiring the initiative manager” then becomes one of your top three philanthropic priorities.
  2. What needs to be true, and by when, to achieve your philanthropic strategy? This question helps you reverse engineer the implementation of your strategy. You start with the end in mind. If you were to achieve your strategy, what must happen and by when? That leads you back to the things you must begin doing immediately.
  3. If you could only accomplish ONE thing to achieve your strategy this year, what would it be? For this question pretend your hands are tied and you are only allowed to do one thing this year but it’s the thing that will help you make the most progress toward implementing your strategic plan. That one thing should become a top philanthropic priority!

Initiate Action On The Strategy

Once you’ve identified your top priorities, you need immediately initiate action. Take these four steps to make rapid progress and maintain your momentum:

  1. Assign priority champions. For each priority, pick a person who will be responsible for it. This person does not need to do everything, but they need to make sure a specific priority is achieved, and they need to be held accountable. This should happen before you leave the strategic planning retreat!
  2. Give each priority its own punch list. Ask priority champions to create a list of the top 5-10 most important things that need to happen next for their priority. For each item add a deadline. Keep it simple and ask them to create this list within two weeks of your strategy being developed.
  3. Tell everyone. Every single person at every level of your organization, be it program officers, finance directors, family members, or the receptionist, need to know the top implementation priorities and who is accountable for each of them. Do this immediately. Your philanthropic priorities must be top of mind.
  4. Review progress with your entire team. Ask priority champions to regularly share progress with everyone. Staff meetings are a great place to do this. Top implementation priorities should be the first agenda item at every meeting. Priority champions bring their lists and update everyone on progress. That holds them accountable and lets your team troubleshoot and solve problems together.

Speed is your friend in implementation. The quicker you can begin implementing your strategic plan, the more momentum you will gain. The more momentum you gain, the faster everyone gets on board and the quicker you achieve results. By narrowing down your philanthropic priorities, asking key questions, and initiating immediate action you will stay focused, hold yourself accountable, and accelerate your impact velocity.

Now that you have your philanthropic priorities set, I want to invite you to my Aerodynamic Giving Workshop. This workshop is specifically for CEOs of grantmaking foundations, corporate giving programs, and philanthropic family offices who want to minimize strategic friction and find their fastest path to impact. RSVP today:

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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