The 5 Steps to Creating a Philanthropic Strategy


To navigate and lead during turbulent times, you need a flexible philanthropic strategy. Strategy defines what you want to accomplish and how you want to accomplish it. It ensures you and your team are focused on what’s most important and prevents you from getting pulled into different directions and disconnected activities. 

Yet too often, philanthropists don’t have a strategy to reach their goals. Or they have a strategic plan, but it’s outdated. Their strategy doesn’t inform day-to-day decisions and they lack a roadmap for change.

If that describes you, never fear! Strategy can be developed in less time than you might think. Armed with your strategy, you’ll be ready to change the world! Read on for five steps to create your philanthropic strategy so you can stop wasting time and money, and start increasing the clarity, impact, and joy of your giving.

Step 1: Change your mindset.

I get it. The past few years have been particularly bizarre and turbulent. For many funders it can feel impossible to set your strategy when the future feels so uncertain and only time will tell how it’ll all shake out. But the “only time will tell” part is not unique to this moment in history. 

The future is no more uncertain today than it was a decade ago or a century ago. 

So, here’s the mindset shift I challenge you to make: Rather than allowing the idea of an “unknown future” to paralyze you, let it free you. You can’t possibly plan for every contingency, so stop trying to. Instead, change your strategy mindset. Decide to be flexible and agile, recognizing your philanthropic strategy will almost certainly have to change along the way. 

Step 2: Recalibrate your timeline.

If the start of this decade has taught us anything, it’s the futility of spending a year to create a five-year strategic plan. By the time you formulate your strategy the world will have changed! And while setting long-range goals is great, the reality is we can only plan for the next 12 months. 

Instead, recalibrate your timeline.

It’s far better to develop your philanthropic strategy quickly, begin implementing it immediately, and change it rapidly as conditions change. By quickly I mean creating your strategy in a little as seven hours or seven weeks! That way you and your team have agreement on what you want to accomplish, a plan to get there, and the confidence you can adjust along the way. 

Step 3: Don’t waste time on data collection.

Gasp! I know, I know: Suggesting data collection is a waste of time goes against everything we’ve ever been taught about informed decision-making. So please notice I did not call data collection a waste of time; I’m only recommending you don’t waste time on it.

What typically happens is this: Philanthropy leaders begin strategic planning with extensive—and expensive—one-off data-gathering exercises (learning tours, listening sessions, and environmental scans). These efforts take a great deal of everyone’s time and cost a lot of money. And then they stop. And then several years later, they do it all again. 

The truth is, digging into data is critical—but only to a point. Beyond that point, it’s an obstacle induced by a fear of failure. And by the way, shouldn’t you be learning from community members and grantees all the time? If you are continuously learning about needs and opportunities, this data will be at your fingertips when it’s time to inform your strategy.

Base your decisions on the best information you have right now, and have confidence you can keep improving along the way. You do not have to have it all figured out to get started.

Step 4: Ask “What?” questions

Developing your philanthropic strategy means identifying your desired future. Gather your team together and ask “what” questions, such as:

  • What do we want to accomplish in the next 12 months?
  • What kind of philanthropic family, foundation, or corporate giving program do we want to be a year from now?
  • What impact do we want to be having in our community?

That is your desired future state. Now, take an honest look at where you are today (your current state) and ask: “What is the easiest and fastest way we can move from our current state to our desired future state?”

Congratulations! You’ve now determined what you want to accomplish and a plan for getting there. That is your strategy.

Step 5: Identify top implementation priorities 

Now that you’ve set your strategy, it might feel like you have 65 tasks on your to-do list. But you can’t focus on 65 things at once! You must now identify your top three priorities for achieving it. Your top priorities are the most important things that must happen next, to implement your philanthropic strategy. If you don’t have clarity about your top implementation priorities, you will get pulled in too many directions and you won’t make progress.

When I facilitate strategic planning with foundation leaders and philanthropic families, here are three questions I ask to help them determine their top priorities:

  • If you could only accomplish ONE thing to achieve your strategy this year, what would it be?
  • What is the 20% of effort that will drive 80% of your results?
  • What needs to be true, and by when, to achieve your philanthropic strategy?

To be clear, these “top priorities” are for your entire enterprise—whether you’re an organization or a married couple. These aren’t individual-level or even team-level priorities. They’re everything to everyone. 

For example, if you’ve decided to sunset and spend down your foundation, your top priorities might be to conduct financial forecasting, narrow your grantmaking to focus core funding areas, and create a communications plan. Notice that these priorities aren’t the only things that need to happen. They are the most important things you need to focus on next.

Creating your philanthropic strategy is easier than you think.  Simply shift your mindset, recalibrate your timeline, avoid wasting time on excessive data collection, ask the right questions, and identify your top priorities for implementing it.

Wondering whether it’s time for you to create or refresh your strategy? Here’s a quick tip: Ask everyone on your team (staff, board, family) what your organization’s top 3 priorities are for implementing your strategy. If they aren’t in agreement on what’s most important, or they can’t locate your strategic plan, or they ask, “What strategy?” it’s time to create or reinvigorate your strategy! 

If you need help figuring out how to successfully create a philanthropic strategy that will guide your organization to success, or you aren’t sure where to begin  schedule a call with me

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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