Saved by the Bell! 6 Back to School Tips for Philanthropists


Get excited and be ready for your next big initiative.

After a long summer of trips to the lake, relaxing at the pool, and visiting amusement parks, the days are getting shorter and you’re noticing pumpkin-spice-flavored everything in the stores. The time spent at the beach house seems like a distant memory and the back-to-school season is in high gear. Parents everywhere are eagerly — or not so eagerly — sending their kids off to school. 

You can almost feel it — the anticipation, excitement, and uncertainty that makes the start of each new school year memorable and special. The first day back marks the biggest change as we transition from the carefree days of summer to kickstarting a new routine for the fall. Kids have butterflies over what potential new friends they will make. What new and challenging things will they learn this year? And what new clubs or activities might they join? 

Starting the year off right prepares students, teachers, and parents alike for a successful year ahead. That same sense of anticipation and excitement can be found with funders who are launching a new initiative or an entirely new philanthropy. There is the same sense of expectation, nervousness, and a bit of uncertainty that makes the start of the process thrilling, maybe a bit nerve-racking, and filled with hope.

Here are six back-to-school tips for grantmakers:

1. Finish your summer assignments. Inevitably, at the end of each summer, there are kids who complete all their summer reading and go back to class prepared to participate, learn, and stay on target. Then there are those who totally blew it off. They go back to school unprepared and a little behind the rest of the kids. Which one do you want to be? In philanthropy, it’s important to do your homework – to stay up to date on recent philanthropy trends, local issues, and how the latest technology trends influence charitable giving. Constant learning is essential to develop insight into what will help grantmakers better understand how they are doing in their work and how to improve.

2. Try and make new friends early. With a new school year comes new friends. Many parents try and plan playdates or get-togethers before the first day of school so their kids can get to know some of their peers in hopes that some of that awkwardness fades away. Grantmakers can do the same thing! No one works in a vacuum, so it’s important to get to know who the players and stakeholders involved in your funding area are. Well before you launch a new grantmaking program, find out who else is working on the same issues. 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.

3. Pick out your outfit the night before. So often in school, what you wear says a lot. You want an outfit you feel great in and one that doesn’t make you feel nervous, uncomfortable, or fidgety. When I dropped off my 12-year-old son at middle school today, he proudly wore an “Equal Rights” pin on his hat and his favorite new shirt. For grantmakers, your messaging is the image you want to portray. You’ll need to decide how you want to present yourself and make sure all the pieces are in place and ready to work together before the big day. Before you launch your next grantmaking initiative, think about the tools you’ll need to promote it — fact sheets, a website, a mobile app, a network of ambassadors, etc. Then be sure everything and everyone is prepared and ready to hit the ground running!

4. Get the rest you need the night before. Showing up for school tired and groggy is never a good idea. The same goes for when you are rethinking your philanthropic strategy. If you’re exhausted and still recovering from another program or event, that can drain your energy and undermine your focus. To someone else, you come across as less enthusiastic or insincere about your work. When considering the timing of a new initiative, make sure it doesn’t overlap too much with other demands, so you give your all and make the biggest impact when your new work gets started.

5. Be prepared, but don’t overprepare. Remember when you showed up to class with a trendy Trapper Keeper (and yes, they are popular again now) only to find out you needed three separate 1-inch binders? No matter how prepared you are for your first day, there are likely to be additional resources needed after the start of school. Knowing what you’ll need in terms of resources and securing them before you launch a new foundation or grantmaking program is critical. But you should also understand that there will be unanticipated needs once your work begins. Maybe your grantmaking strategy 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. Be flexible and set time and resources aside for that reason.

6. Being excited is great! The excitement felt on the first day of school is tangible as everyone is giddy with emotions running high. As adults and funders, we often feel that we need to curb our enthusiasm and remain stoic to convey authority and steadfastness in the name of professionalism, so we may stifle our emotions. After all, we aren’t schoolchildren anymore, right? But really, how boring is that? Passion and excitement are contagious! When someone exudes excitement about something, others around you will crave that same sense of intensity. Consider your energy as a strategy to inspire others. It motivates and drives those around us, and it can be one of the most powerful motivators out there, bringing new and exciting energy to a grantmaking initiative. We can share our excitement and still be seen as professional, capable, and effective grantmakers with whom others will want to work. And everyone will have more fun in the process too!

We know as parents that all the planning and preparation we do with our kids is, with any luck, setting them up to have a great first day of school which can then set the tone for their entire school year. Shouldn’t we be doing the same thing as funders? For your next big philanthropic endeavor, think of it as your “first big day.” What can you do now to be prepared? What tools or resources will you need? Who else should collaborate with you? Reach out and schedule a meeting (i.e., a playdate) with them. What will you need in place to communicate about it? When should you begin? And how can you leverage your own excitement to engage others? Good luck!

If you want to set yourself up for a successful launching day, sometimes you need expert advice and a sounding board. If you’re not sure where to begin, I can help! If you are having “back-to-school” panic and need help meeting your 2022 goals or planning for your 2023, schedule a call with me or shoot me an email to learn more about my philanthropic advisory services. We’ll get you excited about achieving your philanthropic goals quickly, so you can make sure your new initiative has a lasting impact on your community.

© 2022 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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