Lessons for Philanthropists

Social Venture Partners has been publishing a list of 10 Things We’d Like to Tell Every New Philanthropist on the SVP Blog. With permission from Paul Shoemaker, I’m republishing the lessons here. I think there is a lot of philanthropic knowledge currently concentrated in the hands of institutional funders. SVP is setting a great example by sharing what they know with the general public.

SVP makes the following note about the lessons: “This is written in the spirit of sharing knowledge and helping philanthropists be more effective. Every mistake articulated here has been made by all of us. The intent is not to preach a one-size-fits-all formula or to be arrogant in our viewpoints. Our sincere hope is that it will encourage reflection and stimulate lots of feedback, criticism, and conversation.”

Each lessons opens with a title that paraphrases a common misperception or mistake (you can find lesson #1 here).

Lesson #2 – “It is clear this non-profit needs my support more than the other. This non-profit might not survive without my contribution and that other non-profit has plenty of money.”

There are certainly times where urgent financial need is the right criteria for making a grant decision. But just as often it is not. When presented with this scenario, consider some questions – why are they in such dire need? Why are they so low on cash? Should I fund organizations based on financial urgency or on positive impact? Sometimes a non-profit might be in that circumstance because of poor cash planning, questionable program effectiveness, or ineffective fund development. The point is not to categorically reject or approve giving to an organization in need, but to take a little time to understand why that is the case.

On the flip side, philanthropists will sometimes shy away from funding successful non-profits with a strong financial position because they don’t “need” it as much. But why would we punish successful organizations? Isn’t that what we want? Organizations doing great work, with effective programs, and that have the ability to sustain and maintain funding over time.

Lastly, there can be a tendency for philanthropists to fund need instead of impact because one organization’s mission is more compelling than another’s. We all want to give to what we care deeply about and there is nothing wrong with that. While difficult to measure, at the end of the day the reason to contribute to a non-profit is to get improved academic outcomes, fewer teen pregnancies, a cleaner environment, and other positive changes in our world.

Lesson #3 – “I need to be careful to not let the non-profit get too dependent on my contributions”

Logically, how does discontinuing funding to a non-profit make them more “independent” or “less dependent”? There is a reality for most non-profits – they depend on funders (corporate, individual, public) for some or much of their revenue. To the degree that they have fee-for-service, or earned income revenue streams, they can become less dependent on philanthropic sources of funding. But discontinuing their funding is not an action that prevents or reduces their dependency per se. If a funder wants to improve a non-profit’s independence and long-term sustainability, they can focus on capacity building, longer-term and bigger grants, investing in outcomes systems, etc.

On a related topic – sometimes funders / philanthropists will be less likely to give to a non-profit with a strong net asset position, because “they are already financially strong enough and some other org needs my money more.” Yes, there is such a thing as too cash rich (e.g. more than 1-2 year’s annual budget amount held in Net Assets), but a non-profit’s net assets are its working capital, its investment capital, its buffer against the ups and downs of running any organization. It’s not money “just sitting around, doing nothing.”

Lesson #4: “The non-profit needs to be run more like a business and set specific goals …”

Like a lot of things in life, it depends on what you mean by the words “run like a business.” Sometimes the expression is used inappropriately and ignorant of the unique issues a non-profit faces. Three simple examples: 1) in most situations in the non-profit world, the “end customer” does not buy the product or service, 2) the usual economies of scale are often not present for non-profit direct service organizations, and 3) there is no clear “market signal” like earnings per share to guide and optimize where capital flows; in fact sometimes money can run away from successful non-profits because they don’t “need” it as much. Non-profits don’t need to be “run like a business” when it comes to mission, effectiveness and resource allocation, etc.

But when it comes to efficiency, operational processes, measurement, etc., non-profit organizations can learn important lessons from private sector business (and some certainly have). No matter how fuzzy or grey the social outcomes are, measurement is important.  How else do you know if you are realizing your mission? Areas like how to…do strategic planning, build financial / cash planning scenarios and tools, hire and retain quality staff…are all examples of domains where running a non-profit more like a business does make sense. In the end, the only reason to do so is to help the non-profit increase its capacity to be effective at achieving its mission.

P.S. By the way, private sector businesses could learn a lot from non-profits as well, but that’s another future topic altogether.

Lesson #5 — “I think philanthropists that are public and visible are just showing off with their money”

There are cases where that is true and certainly it’s a personal decision about how public or private to be about one’s philanthropy. More often than not, someone being more public or visible about their philanthropy is done for a reason, i.e. to show leadership and commitment to a particular cause. And to do so as a means to an end, to help raise more philanthropic capital. This is true especially for newer organizations and causes.

Like most things in this world in we each invest, we want to know who we are investing in (not just what). And knowing who the other “investors” are is an important signal that may guide our own decisions. Visible philanthropy might occasionally be motivated by arrogance, but more often it’s a signal of public leadership and commitment.

Paul S.

P.S. A lot of those people that are the most visible in their philanthropy in one realm are also very private or anonymous in other areas of their giving.