The Story of Tactical Philanthropy Part II

This post is part of a series looking at the history and future of Tactical Philanthropy. The series is in preparation for a number of new initiatives we’re preparing to roll out soon.

Read Intro
Read Part I
Read Part III

In early 2006, before launching Tactical Philanthropy, I was looking at ways that I could provide more ongoing philanthropic advice to my wealth management clients. I had a developing view that the clients I was working with (high net worth donors) did not want consulting on how social change happened. They didn’t want studies on whether after school programs worked better than one-on-one tutoring. They wanted to know how to engage in philanthropy effectively. This was an important distinction from how large foundations seek advice.

At that time, my younger sister was working as a corporate philanthropy consultant at a firm called Changing Our World. Two of the senior executives at the firm were writing a book that would include a number of chapters by guest authors and my sister suggested I submit something to them. In response, I wrote an essay titled The Evolution of the Tactical Philanthropist. At that time, the phrase “strategic philanthropy” was in common usage, but the phrase “tactical philanthropy” had never been used. I reasoned that if strategy existed, then by definition so did tactics.

In the essay I argued that a combination of a massive demographic shift, falling costs due to web based technologies, and changing cultural expectations for philanthropy as exemplified by Bill Gates’ decision at age 50 to leave Microsoft and Warren Buffett’s decision to give his wealth away during his life, was giving rise to a new type of donor I termed “tactical philanthropists”:

“Today’s Tactical Philanthropist realizes the benefits of “institutionalizing” their giving process and taking advantage of the benefits of structuring their philanthropic capital. However, the Tactical Philanthropist also chooses not to imitate existing institutions the way America’s first major philanthropists did. Many of today’s donors feel that they can produce a more profound impact by focusing their grants on smaller, niche nonprofits that are being overlooked by traditional funding.

While Tactical Philanthropists are often willing and able to invest in unproven nonprofits and to take on greater risks with their grantmaking, they also demand accountability in a way earlier generations of philanthropists did not. Just as publicly traded companies have discovered that modern investors demand clear, complete and frequent communications regarding their results, more and more nonprofits are finding themselves under pressure to show the tangible outcomes of the grant money they receive.

In the next great wave of philanthropy, the mere awareness of funding vehicles will not suffice to meet the needs of the Tactical Philanthropist. Actively selecting, assembling, and structuring them into intelligent, functional combinations — while simultaneously optimizing the base of assets that fund the individual vehicles — forms the core of the practice of Tactical Philanthropy. It is not simply an administrative process of implementation but rather an intellectual process in its own right.”

To my surprise, my essay was accepted and published in the book Mapping the New World of American Philanthropy.

At this same time, I happened to stumble across a new conference called NetSquared that was being held for the first time. The conference was bringing together technology experts with nonprofit and philanthropy professionals to figure out how the nonprofit world could leverage social media tools. In a series of breakout sessions, Seth Mazow (then author of the Interplast blog) and Elisa Camahort (one of the founders of BlogHer), taught me how to launch a blog. In retrospect I realize I had no idea what I was doing, but I was naive enough about social media to do it anyway. Three years later writing this blog is one of my favorite things.

When I coined the term “tactical philanthropy” in the essay, I defined it rather narrowly: “To practice Tactical Philanthropy is to organize, optimize, and transfer philanthropic capital in ways that maximize the impact of the donor’s strategic plan. It is the practice of transforming philanthropic strategy into reality.”

What’s happened is that over the past three years, the Tactical Philanthropy community has given life to the phrase and injected it with real meaning. Next week, I’ll talk about the course the blog took and the more robust definition that has grown up around “tactical philanthropy.”

Read Intro
Read Part I
Read Part III


  1. Hi Sean,

    I am enjoying your posts about the origin of “Tactical Philanthropy” and the evolution of its meaning.

    I can’t wait for you to describe the changes and your future course. Your writing has stronly influenced my knowledge and opinions about philanthropy and I’m sure it will continue to do so.


  2. Thanks so much Marion. I appreciate the support and look forward to sharing my plans very soon!