Last month the EQ Investors team hosted an evening seminar for clients and friends to discuss charitable giving. Alongside Founder John Spiers presenting the excellent Giving is Great guide and charity search platform, and Jim Clifford OBE of Bates Wells Braithwaite sharing his wisdom and expertise on ways of planning and measuring the impact of giving, I was delighted to share some of my insights on how to make your giving great, gleaned from advising I.G. Advisors’ philanthropy and charity clients. Here are a few key takeaways from my talk:
Be evidence based
As Jim shared in detail, and John has been working so hard to make easier with his Giving Is Great initiative, being evidence-based is an essential part of deciding how and where to give. It’s so important to do your homework beyond simply listening to whoever is asking you best, or loudest, for money. Use available data to make decisions, and make sure you’re consulting widely with people who know the field, to really understand what works.
Build the evidence base
Being evidence-based is important, but if the cause area you are passionate about is nascent, or complex, don’t forget about the very urgent need to build the evidence base, too. A lack of impact data collection, evaluation, storage and sharing can hold very effective projects back, and keep you from knowing they are effective, and often funding a proof of concept can lead to greater investment from other donors. Underwriting the space and time organisations need to establish robust evaluation processes can be a game changer.
Often metaphors for philanthropy focus on plants or nature – growing, nurturing, feeding – and they work well, sometimes you can be the water on an already growing plant, sometimes you can be the seed that starts the whole thing off, and it feels great to see your contribution bear fruit. But often philanthropists can forget to fund (or be!) the other essential elements of this allegory: the training for the gardener, the rent for the garden, the campaign to stop next-door’s use of toxic pesticides. Successful charities need the skills and knowledge to build a sustainable operation, and philanthropy can provide this where other sources of funding can’t, or don’t.
Take a partnerships approach
Just like in business, success in philanthropy and charity work rests on more than just good ideas. At I.G., we recommend always approaching giving as a partnership to make sure you’re providing the right value, getting the most value, and you feel valued. This isn’t without its challenges, of course, so it’s suggested that you start with the basics:
- Assess your own value – we often find clients like the idea of being very hands-on with their giving, contributing their ideas and taking action as well as purely cash. In some cases, this can create clashes of expectations, so having frank and honest discussions about what the charity’s needs are (which really might just be cash) and what skills, assets and time you could realistically offer them, can help you make sure you’re not overwhelming them, and you’re giving the most valuable thing to them, which could be cash, your opinion, your contacts, or your time as a trustee.
- Assessing leadership – just like you would with any investment decision, make sure you take the time to get to know the leadership you’ll be partnering with, who can make or break the success of any initiative. It might not be the CEO, it could be a project manager, or a fundraiser, but any organisation needs someone with fire, vision and passion to drive progress.
- Networking – any successful business person knows it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and the charity sector is a whole world of its own. Spend time connecting with its leaders to keep yourself ahead of the game, partnering with ideas before they’re public, understanding front-line risks and challenges, and building yourself the connections you need to drive real progress.
Use, but also drive, leverage
There are a lot of smart ways to make your philanthropy go further, in terms of literal pounds, and impact too. These can include making use of innovative matched funding mechanisms like The Big Give, contributing to pooled funds or donor circles, or supporting re-granting organisations who create a portfolio of giving much like an investment manager would. But, no matter which you choose, always recognise the role you have to play – all of these models rely on you not being the only donor! If you aren’t a part of driving attention, profile and support to the campaign or project too, then the matching or pooled effect might not exist. So, make sure you’re also helping to make the process a success, and not just relying on charities to do all the work!
Connect with peers
Philanthropy can sometimes be a little lonely, and it can be hard to know where to turn for advice. As well as working with advisors, connecting with others who have personal experience of giving can make a real difference, and help you along your journey. I.G. has a podcast called What Donors Want, which is a great no-pressure place to start hearing the experiences of other donors, and learn from their early mistakes and challenges!
Look at the system
Deciding how, when and where to give is a daunting task at any level of giving, and a trend we’re seeing across the philanthropy space is the idea of ‘systems thinking’, which is – at its most simple – understanding the landscape, the system, of what you’re trying to fund. Not just seeing what already exists, but what the need is overall, where the gaps are, where charities don’t already exist or are struggling to scale, and what is stopping progress. It’s also imported to assess what might happen elsewhere in the system if you fund a specific project, who is being excluded from decision making, and what level of support could overwhelm the system. This type of thinking has the benefit of avoiding big mistakes, unintended consequences and missed opportunities.