Nurturing the Philanthropic Impulse

(This is a guest post from Jacob Harold, Program Officer at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Jacob Harold

This morning I spoke on a panel with the unwieldy but accurate title of “Nurturing the Philanthropic Impulse – Donor Advisors and Philanthropic Strategy.” It was hosted by Eric Kessler of Arabella Advisors and moderated by the psychologist and philanthropic researcher Tom Backer. The panel addressed the complex, growing role in philanthropy of professional advisors—financial advisors, estate attorneys, wealth managers, and accountants. These advisors are often there at the moments when wealthy individuals and families are making philanthropic decisions. They’re uniquely placed to connect donors with good information and resources, but many advisors don’t feel equipped to help their clients get as much philanthropic bang for the buck as possible. (I’ve been trying to speak more plainly, so I won’t say “maximize marginal social impact per dollar” like I kinda want to.)

I’d like to see more advisors not only playing the role of trusted confidant and supporter, but also of philanthropic “concierge”—linking donors to resources that are available in the nonprofit sector that could help them make good decisions: Guidestar and DonorEdge provide data about nonprofits; magazines like Stanford Social Innovation Review share new research and serve as a platform for debate; Social Venture Partners provides peer-based learning; and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors offers high-level strategic advisory services. Dozens of other organizations like these provide useful services to donors. But how is a professional advisor to make sense of these scattered, evolving resources? As a sector, we need to take these cottage industries and turn them into a coherent system of data and knowledge that advisors can easily tap into. A good concierge doesn’t need to be a cook, sommelier, or tour guide—but they do need to know where the great restaurants and museums are.


  1. Ani says:

    easy. go to your local community foundation.

  2. Ani, community foundations are great resources. But will they help a donor use a service like Foundation Source? At the end of the day, community foundations are selling donor advised funds. Community Foundations are one of the “amazing resources” that Jacob refers to, but they are not well positioned to act as “concierge”.

    In the interest of fair discloser, my firm is trying to serve as concierge in the way Jacob describes, so I’m clearly biased.

  3. Ani says:

    Any community foundation worth its salt will recommend what it thinks is the best fit for the donor. At the foundation I work for, we believe that a fund at a cf is the most effect and efficient way to go for most people–but not always. For people who want complete control, or whose charitable interests don’t mesh with ours, or who need their own dedicated staff, we often recommend other choices,including commercial gift funds and private foundations. I don’t know much about Foundation Source, but I think that donors who can only afford a foundation-in-a-box is usually better off at a cf. And at the “end of the day,” we are not selling donor-advised funds: we put our efforts into inspiring people to fund our city’s future by setting up endowed field-of-interest or unrestricted funds, either now or in their wills.

  4. I am just going to state again for clarity sake that I am a big fan of community foundations and think they have an even bigger role to play in the coming decades than the very important role they play in philanthropy today.

    Also, Ani, you are right when you say that community foundations real efforts are in helping their city (and that is how community foundations are so different from commercial gift funds). But Jacob’s post was about “serving donors”, not “serving the community”. The “product” or “service” that CFs “sell” to donors is donor advised fund administration (of course grantmaking advice is part of the bundled package, but it cannot be unbundled).

    So when you combine that economic incentive with statements like yours that imply that your “competitor” (private foundations) are generally not appropriate, you can see why I question the ability of CFs to act as the “concierge” that Jacob refers to.

    Now, lots of nuances can be lost in short blog comments, so I just want to circle around and point out that my comments here are not a sort of attack on CFs, but a reaction to your solution to the issues Jacob raises being, “easy. go to your local community foundation.”

  5. Jacob Harold says:

    There are some community foundations that do an excellent job in this “concierge” function. The DonorEdge platform mentioned in the post helps get data about nonprofit performance to donors with funds at community foundations. It was orginally created by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and has since been adopted (and adapted) by several other community foundations. Not all community foundations are well-positioned to play this concierge function–but platforms like DonorEdge can help.

  6. Roxie Jerde of DonorEdge is currently blogging here with the COF team and I think her work and the DonorEdge platform is great. But imagine Ani’s comment if you replaced “community foundation” with another “concierge”-type.

    “Easy. Call Foundation Source.”
    “Easy. Call Goldman Sachs.”
    “Easy. Call Rockefeller Partners”
    “Easy. Call Ensemble Capital”

    Neither community foundations nor any of the above are a simple across the board answer to the issues raised in your post, Jacob.

  7. Partner or Slave says:

    “Jacob Harold, Program Officer at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy.”

    Is Jacob covering the conference “for” TP or “with” TP?

  8. Hmm, When I talk about my Financial Times column I say I write “for” the Financial Times. When I talk about my work at Ensemble Capital, I say I am working “for” Ensemble Capital.

    I’ve never thought about any negative connotations. If any of the authors don’t like the vocabulary, I’d be happy to discuss.

    But I think you’re talking about a non-issue here.

  9. It’s true, it’s tough for any of the groups you mention to objectively play “concierge” in the sense of matching donors with the right charitable vehicle (although I know this is Ensemble’s approach and there are certainly others as well).

    I think Jacob Harold was calling for more resources and education for “financial advisors, estate attorneys, wealth managers, and accountants,” not more vehicle neutrality among philanthropic types. And I agree with his point: These folks generally have no horse in the race, but often seem to have a comfort zone with one philanthropic vehicle or another. Ideally they should be helping clients make informed decisions based on their particular situation, not the advisors’ own confort zone.

    Once donors get in the right vehicle, though, the philanthropic advisors should be able to play that concierge role to connect donors with the best resources to accomplish their philanthropic goals. It’s a full-time job to keep up with everything going on in the sector. I know–it’s mine.