The Rise of Issue-Agnostic Philanthropy

Judgement Sign In yesterday’s post, the foundation looking for “extraordinary and unorthodox philanthropic opportunities” described themselves as “issue-agnostic”. A traditional view of giving suggests giving springs from a donor’s passion for a particular issue. Yet, I’m running across an increasing number of donors/funders who describe themselves as issue-agnostic or some similar term.

A few examples:

  • Jerry Hirsch’s Lodestar Foundation, which holds as a core principal that they are “not focused on any specific field of interest and focus instead on leveraging resources (that is, providing the most help with the most effective and efficient use of resources)”
  • A client of mine who at our first meeting recently told me that he is “agnostic to issue area” and is primarily interested in opportunities to help bring to scale highly leveraged impact models.
  • The numerous foundations which focus on supporting “social entrepreneurs,” which is a way of describing an organizational-type without regard to issue-area.

Taking an issue-agnostic approach to philanthropy is at once odd and exciting. It is odd, because giving is an act of caring and if a donor is issue-agnostic the obvious question becomes, “what exactly do you care about?” But it is exciting because it suggests an emerging set of donors are more interested in impact maximization rather than simply taking action to support the causes they care about most.

While a few donors may truly only care about one or two core issues, most donors probably care about many different issue. It isn’t unusual for a mainstream donor to care, in varying degrees, about; education, the environment, children, the arts, health care, job skill training, animals, etc, etc. Conventional philanthropy advice, which I’ve given myself, is to encourage a donor to prioritize the areas the care about and focus their giving on the issues for which they have the most passion.

What if that advice has things all backwards? What if a better approach is for a donor to identify all issue areas about which they have any sort of interest and then seek out philanthropic opportunities that maximize impact with the broad set of issue areas?

I have to say that on its surface, this seems like a utilitarian approach to philanthropy that actually runs the risk of sucking the joy out of giving (can you imagine the joyless mission statement: “We don’t care what good we do, just that we do a lot of it!!” However, in my experience, the most emotionally satisfying philanthropic gift is one which the donor believes with conviction actually made a difference.

Quick quiz, which would be more satisfying to you as a donor:

  • The act of making a gift to a charity within the issue area you are most passionate about.
  • Having conviction that the gift you made to a charity actually made a real difference within one of the many issue areas about which you care?

Of course the two approaches don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Hopefully, donors can find high impact philanthropic opportunities within the issue area about which they are most passionate. But imagine the ramifications if donors shifted their priorities such that impact was #1 and issue area was #2 (or even lower).

What do you think? Are you an issue-centric or impact-centric donor? Would the world be better or worse off if donors shift from issue-centric to impact-centric? Would such a shift make philanthropy more utilitarian or more joyful?


  1. Interesting post Sean, it raises and important issue which I find myself more uncomfortable with than I figured I might be. I’m certainly all for investing in high impact interventions, but it does matter what we are intervening in.

    We can obscure the hypothetical of caring simply about scale to the point where our contribution no longer needs to be philanthropic. Indeed, the highest impact investments likely are in the for-profit sector, investing in a good or service that has no social value at all.

    The fact that someone wants to give philanthropically is in itself a value judgement, I don’t see anything wrong with taking that value further into a specific focus area. In fact, I would argue picking the focus area is the most important (perhaps after the decision to give at all) decision a philanthropist makes.

    The point is not to be focus area agnostic, but rather to be agency-agnostic. The trouble we get into is not so that we invest in lost causes, but rather than we invest in ineffective organizations in the focus areas of our choosing.

    • Picking the focus area first as the most important step is something I think most people would agree with. As I mentioned, I’ve advised that in the past. But wondering in this post if that actually makes sense.

      Think about it this way. What if I REALLY cared about mental health issues and also cared about the environment (it wasn’t my passion, but I still cared). What if my donation could do a LOT more within the environmental field than within mental health. If you take those as assumptions, would you still advise that I give to a mental health agency?

      I certainly agree with your point on being agency agnostic.

  2. Paul Brest says:

    First a minor, obvious point: no donor is entirely issue agnostic. A donor who thought that his or her philanthropic dollars would have more impact in supporting organizations that provide safe abortions rather than organizations advocate against abortions, or vice versa, would likely make the choice based on the issue rather than impact. (So too re gay marriage, gun control, climate change, and quite a few other matters).
    Leaving that aside, to my mind the main constraint on issue-agnosticism is whether a donor can develop enough knowledge across many issue areas to identify truly high performing organizations. Most venture capital firms don’t think they can, and therefore focus on particular sectors. Most large foundations, including Hewlett, don’t think we can, and therefore try to build expertise in particular subject areas.

    • Paul, certainly agree on the fundamental value judgments that exist within philanthropy that you point out. But as I tried to point out, many donors do have very broad ranges of issues areas that they care about and conventional advice (which I’ve given myself) is to tell them to focus on one or two core areas.

      On your second point, I agree with you in some cases. At the institutional foundation level, most foundations (but not all) build internal expertise on issue areas and I agree that focus is then important. However, another approach (we don’t need to debate this again) is to build organizational assessment expertise rather as issue area focus.

      While VC firms do tend to have a field focus, investors in more mature organizations (such as public stock investment managers or even private equity shops) tend to have much less focus and instead build expertise in assessing companies.

      Also, when you go to the donor level, few donors will ever build extensive issue area expertise, yet they are still advised to prioritize issue area first and impact second.

      My point in this most was more about highlighting what might be an emergent trend, but as I play with the concept, I do find much of it appealing.

    • Paul, what do you think of Jerry Hirsch’s comments on your own support for philanthropy education and/or strengthening the field of philanthropy as a form of issue-agnostic/impact-centric giving?

  3. Brigid says:

    I do think it’s important to give outside of what I’m passionate about (for me, that’s the arts). It doesn’t feel utilitarian, though, it feels more transcendent, like I am getting outside the box of my own little likes and dislikes.

    (Wrote a post that describes this better here:

    But I will say this: if high-impact philanthropy solves whatever problem is being addressed, then I’ll stop giving there. i.e. when I feel like education is an equal experience for all Americans, I’ll stop giving to KIPP. But I can’t imagine ever not giving to artists.

    Putting on my pragmatic fundraising hat, I’d say that philanthropists who give to their passions are more likely to be repeat, long-term donors than those who give for high-impact.

    • That’s an interesting point. Impact-centric donors might not the type that fundraisers want to cultivate. However, I would suggest that impact-centric donors are also more likely to make fewer, larger bets and that makes them attractive.

  4. I agree that there exist a subset of philanthropists who are more interested in impact maximization, the so called “impact-centric donor”. I disagree, in principle, to promoting agency-agnostic giving instead of building relationships with a trusted provider to achieve high-impact philanthropy. I think it likely that impact-centric donors are more likely to make fewer, larger donations.
    David Pidsley

  5. Jon Brooks says:

    Sean, do you think this change in advice could lead to more giving?

    For example, if a donor focuses on the issue of Education they may identify four ‘great’ projects (according to their criteria). However, if the donor is issue-agnostic and is finds one ‘great’ project in each of five areas (easier than finding four ‘great’ projects in a single area?) they could potentially be inspired to give more.

    Lots of assumptions to play with – elasticity of donor giving, spreading funds more thinly, etc – but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts (and any real-life examples?).

  6. David Lynn says:

    Great post, Sean. And thanks for your talk at the SVPI conference.

    One theme that has seemed to be gaining ground in the SVP space is finding a hybrid between issue and impact by refocusing from a sector to a target population. For instance, picking a certain high school, or refugee girls aged 11-14 in Southeast San Diego.

    Rather than talking about a sector like homelessness, we’re now talking about a specific group that has a myriad of needs. Thus we are essentially issue agnostic – the issues might be education, homelessness, pregnancy, etc, and they may change over time – but very target focused. And in the SVP world, the goal is then to build up the capacity of the organizations that are going to be able to make a dent in the problems facing that target population.

  7. Geri Stengel says:

    Interesting question. My response is that charities are seldom, if ever, either/or propositions. Most have some positive impact although often not as much as they could or should. So my answer is that I balance passion with pragmatism. I’ll give to a cause I’m passionate about (often because a friend is passionate about it) but only if there is some reason to believe that it is having a positive impact. It doesn’t have to be on the way to changing the whole world. Change in a neighborhood or village is OK if it is change I care about.

  8. Eric Friedman says:

    This post really resonated with me, as I’ve tried to be an issue-agnostic donor. I want to help people, but have no ideological preference for which people I help or how I help them. My process is to first determine which area of focus has the greatest opportunity for impact, then select which organization is most effective.

    I have sought advice from several experts in philanthropy, and to be frank, they were not helpful. They seemed more confused or frozen by my approach, and generally told me that I should figure out what I was passionate about. They did not seem to understand my response, “I’m passionate about finding the most impactful way to help people.” For all the talk about “strategic philanthropy” and “impact,” many experts had difficulty thinking about how to maximize impact unless the donor first constraints the issue to focus on. There was only one group I found could relate well to my philosophy: GiveWell.

    I view it as bothersome that the typical focus is on the donor’s interests as much as the recipient’s needs, and I know that I’m not the only one with this view. Many of the others have told me that they would give more if they actually knew what was most impactful.

  9. Barbara LambHall says:

    New to this blog, just found it from another list I’m on. I think as professional philanthropy advisors and fund developers, who don’t want to be hampered by “hardening of the categories”. Change is everywhere, in every sector. I used to work with Village Enterprise Fund, which birthed, which I’m sure you know as a very successful social entrepreneurship model. Donors may grab onto many aspects of an organization that may be related to passion or impact or both, OR, there are often nuances that aren’t readily apparent once a donor starts giving. There’s often a personal connection of some sort to a cause. Many donors have also told me that if they are personally involved with the work of an organization and the impact of their gift is apparent, that they would certainly give more.

  10. Ian Turner says:

    Like Eric above, I guess you could describe me as one of the mythical issue-agnostic donors. I don’t look at it that way, though; it’s just that my mission is overly broad: “Improve the human condition.” That’s it. Lately, that seems to end up meaning giving to health organizations, but that’s only because there seems to be more evidence of impact and of bang-for-buck in that sector. Perhaps that’s because health charities are actually more effective; perhaps it’s because health outcomes are easier to measure. Either way, if an education charity comes along with an even more stunning story of impact, I’d be happy to shift my giving to that sector.

    David Pidsley’s prediction above certainly is true in my case: I only give once every three years, because researching impact is such a pain.

    Regarding the idea that charities don’t want to pursue high-impact donors: Unfortunately, I think it’s essentially accurate. Donors that actually do any significant research before giving constitute a tiny portion of the total donation pie, and those donors also lack the extreme loyalty that other types of donors provide. Sadly, these tendencies create all the wrong incentives for charities.

    • Thanks Ian. Your desire to “improve the human condition” was what I was trying to get at with the term issue-agnostic. As I wrote later, I’m thinking impact-centric is a better term. Thanks for sharing your thinking/experience. It helps us all understand the “strange, new breed” of donor you represent! :^)

  11. JMyste says:

    I have never thought to express it as you did, but I am very much an impact doner. My current charity of choice is Med & Food for Kids, which is a Hatain Relief Fund. I choose it because each small donation actually makes a difference in one real persons life. My four criteria for donating are:

    1. The charity is primarily run by volunteers. (If possible).

    2. The charity does not charge those receiving the charity.

    3. The charity does not only give to those in need, but makes them self-suffient. You do not give them food and leave. You give them food and teach them to farm, for example.

    4. The charity can measure the difference they make in a single person’s life. If we receive 20k, we will save 86,000.00 lives in the next year is village X. If we receive 19k, we will save … etc.

    It may not always be possible for all of these criteria to be met, but that is my goal and that MFK is currently the charity that most completely achieves it.


    • I’m glad my post resonated with you JMyste. How would you feel about a charity that was all volunteer run who decided they could do a better job and help more people if they hired trained staff members?

  12. JMyste says:

    I would accept that, so long as the charity was non profit or not for profit, I suppose.