To lead effectively during these challenging times, a flexible philanthropic strategy is paramount.
Your strategy defines not just what you aim to achieve but also how you intend to accomplish it. It helps you identify and reach your philanthropic goals and prevents you from running in disparate directions chasing proverbial squirrels.
However, all too often, philanthropists find themselves without a clear strategy to reach their philanthropic goals. In some cases, they may have a strategic plan, but it’s outdated and no longer informs day-to-day decisions, leaving them without a roadmap.
If this sounds familiar, don’t despair! Developing a strategy is easier than you think. Armed with a well-crafted strategy, you’ll be better prepared to make a meaningful impact on the world.
Read on for five steps to formulate your philanthropic strategy, enabling you to use your resources effectively while enhancing the clarity, impact, and joy of your giving.
1. Shift your Mindset
Admittedly, recent years have been marked by unpredictability and turbulence. Many funders respond by feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the endless what-ifs of an unknown future. As a result, it can feel challenging to set a strategy when the future remains uncertain. But here’s the reality: the future has always been, and will always be, unknown. Always.
So, here’s the mental shift I urge you to embrace: Rather than allowing the concept of an “unknown future” to paralyze you, use it as a source of liberation. Attempting to meticulously plan for every conceivable contingency is a Sisyphean task. It’s time to put a stop to that. Instead, opt for flexibility and agility, acknowledging that your plan will almost inevitably require adjustments along the journey.
To put it more optimistically, you’re granted the freedom to adapt your plan in response to newfound opportunities and innovations, regardless of their source or timing. So, let this realization set you free.
2. Ditch the 5-year Plan
If this decade has taught us anything, it’s the futility of spending a year to create a three-, five-, or 10-year strategic plan. While setting long-range goals is great, the reality is we can only plan for the next 12 months or so. The world changes too rapidly. Meanwhile, the dust is settling on your long-term plan.
That’s good news, though! It means we aren’t locked into an inflexible strategy we’re just slogging through. It’s far more practical to recalibrate your timeline. Develop your philanthropic strategy swiftly, begin implementing it immediately, and be ready to adapt as circumstances evolve. Your strategy can be created in as little as seven hours or seven weeks (yes, really!). As a result, you and your team will have an agreement on what you want to accomplish, a plan for reaching your philanthropic goals, and the confidence you can adjust along the way.
3. Don’t Let Data Collection Paralyze You
Hold on to your hats, folks! I realize what I’m about to say might sound sacrilegious, especially in a world that worships at the altar of data-driven decision-making. But hear me out: I’m not labeling data collection as an outright waste of time; I’m simply advocating against wasting excessive time on it.
Here’s the usual scenario: Philanthropy leaders kick off their strategic planning with these grand, elaborate, and let’s not forget, wallet-draining data-gathering spectacles. Think “learning tours,” “listening sessions,” and “environmental scans” that consume precious time and money. And then, poof, it all comes to a halt. Fast forward several years, and they’re back at it again.
The hard truth is, that diving into data is undoubtedly crucial, but it has its limits. Beyond a certain point, it becomes a stumbling block fueled by a crippling fear of making mistakes. Besides, shouldn’t we be learning from community members, grantees, and other experts on an ongoing basis? If you’re continuously attuned to needs and spotting opportunities, this data should be readily available when the time comes to shape your strategy.
So, take a leap of faith and base your decisions on the best information you have at this very moment. Believe in your capacity to refine and improve as you go. You don’t need to have all the answers upfront to start making a difference.
4. Embrace the ‘What’ Before the ‘How’
Let’s dive into a common pitfall that many philanthropists stumble into – prematurely diving into the tactics, the ‘how,’ without first establishing clarity around their strategy, the ‘what.’ The truth is that you can’t reasonably figure out how to achieve something until you’ve nailed down precisely what you’re trying to achieve!
So, as you embark on the quest to define and reach your philanthropic goals, kick things off by asking some thought-provoking “what” questions:
- What do we aspire to accomplish within the next 12 months?
- What type of philanthropic entity do we aim to be a year from today, whether it’s a foundation, family office, or corporate giving program?
- What is our ultimate objective?
- What does our desired future look like? Feel like?
Only after you’ve unraveled these ‘what’ components should you venture into the ‘how’ territory. Ask yourself: Given what we want to accomplish, how best can we accomplish it? How do we move from our current state to our desired future state?
For example, I’m helping one of my clients create their first corporate giving strategy. If what they want to accomplish is narrowing their focus to one cause and engaging employees, how they might accomplish that is by launching a signature funding initiative to support children’s mental health and creating an employee matching gifts program. It’s not the CEO funding her pet projects, saying yes to every request to sponsor a golf outing, and joining the local arts education funding collaborative. But if corporate leadership starts guessing at how to create their giving strategy before determining what they want to accomplish with it, they could end up heading down the wrong path—wasting time and money on the wrong tactics.
5. Identify Top Implementation Priorities
Now that you’ve set your strategy, it may seem overwhelming with numerous tasks on your to-do list. However, it’s essential to focus your efforts. Identify your top three priorities for reaching your philanthropic goals. These priorities are the critical actions that must occur next for implementation.
For instance, if your strategy involves sunsetting and spending down your foundation, your top priorities might include financial forecasting, narrowing grantmaking to focus on core funding areas, and crafting a communication plan. These priorities aren’t the only tasks, but they are the most vital ones requiring immediate attention.
Wondering if it’s time to create or refresh your strategy? Here’s a quick tip: Ask everyone on your team, including staff, board members, and family, to name the organization’s top three priorities for implementing your strategy. If there’s a lack of agreement or confusion about your priorities, it’s time to create or revitalize your strategy!
If you need guidance on creating a philanthropic strategy that will guide your organization toward success, or if you’re unsure where to start, please feel free to schedule a call with me!
Reaching philanthropic goals is within your reach. And if you’re a foundation CEO or Trustee who is looking to sharpen your strategy, I invite you to sign up for my free 90-minute Aerodynamic Giving Workshop. You can read more about it and register by clicking the button below.