Impact-Centric Donors

My post on “issue-agnostic” donors struck a chord, with many readers and bloggers disagreeing with the concept. Much of a criticism focused on taking the argument to the logical extreme:

Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation wrote:

“[N]o 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.”

Paul is right and on reflection I think that the term “issue-agnostic” is overly strong. Instead, I should have focused on another phrase I used in the post: “impact-centric”.

Reader Eric Friedman commented on how he fit the model I was discussing:

“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.”

I don’t think that Eric is alone. Most donors care about a variety of issue areas and it may be that as nonprofits become better at demonstrating impact, that impact-centric donors begin to think about issue area focus as an important but secondary decision factor.

I would suggest that the success of has been a remarkable story of tapping into impact-centric donors. While on its surface, Kiva seems like it is focused on the “issue” of poverty alleviation (via microfinance), I would argue that few donors come to Kiva because of their own focus on this issue. I find it highly doubtful that prior to Kiva, there were many US donors who were looking for effective ways to support poor Indian entrepreneurs. Instead, I think Kiva figured out how to communicate impact well (whether Kiva achieves actual impact or simply communicates about impact well is a different argument). It is the tangible experience of achieving impact that brings donors to Kiva, not issue-area alignment.

So maybe issue-agnostic is too strong of a phrase. Maybe impact-centric as opposed to issue-centric is better wording. But I think the concept is real and growing.


  1. Betsy says:

    I think that you are correct in your assertion that it is the anticipated impact of one’s donation that promotes a person to begin believing in a cause enough to be motivated to action. It is very important for those marketing an agency or a cause to understand the and promote the impact of that organization in order to stir one’s emotions to become impact-centric to motivate them to action and then issue-centric. Do you think it is possible to effectively market a non-profit’s mission in an issue-centric manner?

    • I think most nonprofit market in an issue-centric way. Homeless shelters for instance usually talk about how important it is to help homeless people, not home effective they are at helping homeless people. This is true across most issues where nonprofits focus on the importance of their mission rather than their effectiveness at making a difference.

  2. Jerry Hirsch says:

    I happened to notice your blog entitled Impact-Centric Donors, where, in response to a comment by Paul Brest, you felt that the term “issue-agnostic” was too strong.

    Since I may have coined the term “issue-agnostic,” I must now admit that the term may be misleading. Our foundation does indeed pursue a specific issue; our mission is to maximize philanthropy and we have focused on and developed a “competitive edge” on several strategies to accomplish that mission. Other foundations and individual philanthropists have done the same with highly impactful results.

    Paul Brest is a perfect example. While the Hewlett Foundation, which he leads, has specific social missions, Paul himself, as a philanthropist, has spent much of his time contributing valuable advice on the general field of philanthropy. His book Money Well Spent: A Strategy Plan For Smart Philanthropy, demonstrates Paul’s passion to advance the “issue” of maximizing philanthropy and probably has created a significant philanthropic impact. Expanding beyond books, those foundations and individual philanthropists who support the various centers of philanthropic research, education, and facilitation have made millions of dollars of grants to those institutions. Those grants also address the “issue” of maximizing philanthropic endeavors. You mentioned Kiva and Givingwell and funders who support social entrepreneuring. These organizations and others like them are focused on new and different ways to enhance the social sector. That is their issue, and many of them have seen highly successful results. Among other endeavors, our foundation supports non-profit collaborations regardless of their specific social mission, The Tides Foundation supports non-profit office-sharing and the Mott Foundation supports many philanthropic support organizations. I could go on and on.

    Clearly, our society has benefitted greatly and, hopefully, will continue to benefit greatly from the many, many philanthropists who have a passion for one or more specific social causes, but for those who want to contribute to doing good but don’t have a particular passion for a specific social issue, there are many ways to make a difference – to create a significant social impact – by focusing their grants on one of many strategies to increase philanthropic giving and/or, as Paul Brest suggests, on how it can be done smarter.

    • Thanks Jerry. I think that “agnostic” was the wrong word because it implies a lack of belief or passion. Instead, as you explain well, I think the new type of donor I’m discussing is simply focused primarily on doing good and secondarily in caring what area the good occurs in. Funding for philanthropy education, which is rare, is a good example. It is a pure form of a donor seeking to produce more good in the world, while not prioritizing an issue area.

  3. Alexandra Morrison says:
    I was actually hoping this article would be about how to get more views on a fundraiser. I do not seem to be reaching the right people (100~ views no donors). Plz view and advise thanks.