Individual Donors Practicing Unconstrained Philanthropy

This is part three of a six part series exploring the sessions in the Tactical Philanthropy track at the Social Capital Markets conference.

Session Description: Individual Donors Practicing Unconstrained Philanthropy
Many of the most well known, active participants in the social capital markets are institutions. But individual donors have fewer institutional constraints and can bear more social risk. These types of donors can make decisions faster, are able to act on less popular/overlooked areas that nevertheless promise big impact, and find it easier to forge collaborations. Join three individual donors who are doing cutting edge work in the social capital markets without the help of a large staff.

  • Katherina Rosqueta, The Center for High Impact Philanthropy
  • Dave Peery, The Peery Foundation
  • Jerry Hirsch, The Lodestar Foundation
  • Liz Alderman, The Peter C. Alderman Foundation

One of the reasons that I so enjoy working with individual and family philanthropists is that they tend to ignore the many self-imposed constraints that many large, staffed foundations seem to face. Unconstrained by the caution “culture” of much of institutional philanthropy, these donors are able to simply choose to operate on the leading edge.

This session will have a storytelling format. Katherina Rosequeta of The Center for High Impact Philanthropy, will play interviewer to three outstanding individuals who have chosen to doing things different.

Dave Peery, who manages his family’s philanthropy will talk about how his two person shop has ended up being featured in the Monitor Institute’s report on cutting edge practices for their efforts to do live strategic planning on Twitter, co-fund alongside groups like the Skoll Foundation and use video to help their grantees.

Jerry Hirsch, will discuss why he created the Collaboration Prize and became the biggest game in town for nonprofits seeking to merge or collaborate with others. While many funders wish that nonprofits would collaborate, Jerry actually focuses on funding effective and efficient use of resources without regard to issue area.

Liz Alderman will talk about how she and her husband Steve became “accidental philanthropists” when the death of their son Peter on 9/11 thrust them into a passionate effort to help people around the world recover from the mental health effects of being exposed to extreme violence.

You can get a sneak preview of Liz’s story in this video produce about her and Steve when they won the Purpose Prize.

Click here to see the video if you are viewing this post in an email.


  1. Paul Brest says:

    I applaud philanthropists, whether individual or institutional, who take smart risks in order to achieve real social impact. But I have seen no evidence to support the tired cliche that “individual and family philanthropists tend to ignore the many self-imposed constraints that many large, staffed foundations seem to face” and that insitutional philanthropy is constrained by a “caution culture.”

    Sean’s understanding of the potential of philanthrophy is itself constrained by his focus on social investing, while much of the important risk-taking in philanthrophy — often led by staffed foundations — centers around advocacy seeking major systems change in areas ranging from climate change to criminal justice. Social investing and systems change through advocacy are both legitimate and important approaches to philanthropy, and it’s a mistake to privilege one over the other.
    Paul Brest
    Hewlett Foundation (one of a number of risk-taking staffed foundations)

    • OK, I overstate my case a bit but so do you. MOST individual donors are very constrained and do little that is innovative. But what I like about working with individuals is that those who do try to be unconstrained, do so quickly and without regard for many social norms. The three individuals in this session are all examples. Most industries face many external constraints. Philanthropy is unique in that most of the constraints on actions are self-imposed.

      Your case is just as overstated though. It seems very clear to me that institutional philanthropy is a very caution culture. But of course their are risk takers. Hewlett is one example and there are many others.

      My point though — and maybe I didn’t make this clear — is that individuals are more easily able to throw off the self imposed constraints. These small groups, in terms of employees, are then able to “play in the big leagues” with fully staffed foundations.

      But Paul, your underlying point speaks to something different. That I privilege “social investing” over “systems change”. I do. That’s true. But I harp on it only because “effective philanthropy” has come to be defined as a donor taking a “problem solving approach”. Strategic Philanthropy has come to be taken as the only legitimate form of effective philanthropy. And we are faced with a crippled nonprofit field that does not have access to the capital it needs to build robust organizations.

      • Paul Brest says:

        1. Both individual and organized philanthropists are subject to personal, social, and institutional pressures that affect their willingness to take risks. I haven’t seen any empirical evidence that one group is more risk-taking than another.
        2. “Effective” philanthropy supports both high quality organizations that deliver social services and high quality organizations that engage in advocacy and systems change. Organizations of both sorts often lack needed capital. That’s why funders should have a presumption in favor of general operating support when there’s a reasonaby good alignment with their and grantee’s goals, strategies, and activities.
        3. Many individuals depend on philanthropically-funded social services. They also depend on philanthropically-funded efforts to solve major social and environmental problems. Whether an organization is giving people fish or teaching them to fish, catastrophic climate change could wipe out the fishing areas on which it depends.

        • I agree on all three points Paul.

          On point 1, I do find myself frustrated by the limited number of large, staffed foundations who choose to unshackle themselves from personal, social and institutional pressures and engage in more risk taking.

          I wrote more about how/why I think foundations choose to manage risk in a way that restrains their ability to achieve dramatic results in this Chronicle of Philanthropy column.

          However, I’ve also be pleasantly surprised by the frequency with which I see individual donors, with limited experience in philanthropy, quickly embrace cutting edge practices with only a small amount of encouragement.

          Just as the media views unexpected acts to be newsworthy, I find the unconstrained actions of individual donors to be interesting and of note, while I feel that these sorts of activities should be the status quo at large, staffed foundations.

          The point of this session is not to point fingers at large foundations, but to show what is possible, even for donors with little or no staff, if they choose to cast off self imposed constraints.