The Ingredients for High-Impact Philanthropy: Lessons for Non-Profits

Impact Report CoverBy: Blair Glencorse, Accountability Lab Founder and Executive Director.

Put ten philanthropists, foundation staffers and non-profit leaders in a room; add two days of hands-on learning; and throw in brainstorming sessions and Jeffersonian dinners- and what do you get? The Summer Intensive Workshop for Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy, held on the University of Pennsylvania’s beautiful campus in August.

The workshop emerged out of demand the Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) team had identified from practitioners for support on how best to practice high-impact philanthropy in family offices, foundations and newly-established corporate giving practices. High impact philanthropy is evidence-based, socially impactful, cost-effective and measureable giving- something that many within the philanthropic community strive for, but which can be hugely difficult in practice. Organizations like the Thiel Foundation, Mulago Foundation and Gates Foundation are now adopting high-impact philanthropy as the guiding philosophy of their giving.

At the Accountability Lab, we were excited to take part in the workshop and understand the concrete ideas, tools and connections the teaching team at CHIP had brought together; and the lessons that would be relevant for our own work as a non-profit working on strategic accountability issues in the developing world. Over the course of sessions that focused on everything from “smart scanning” of topics of interest, to understanding measurement, to communicating impact, a number of key themes seemed to emerge, including:

  1. People-centered philanthropy works best. Philanthropy means “love of humanity” of course, but ironically, in many cases giving can often ignore the demands of those it seeks to help. High-impact philanthropy is predicated on the idea of partnership, with the voices and ideas of beneficiaries central to the development of programs and management. In the Philadelphia area for example, the William Penn Foundation is continually in touch with its community to adapt programs. A focus on people in this way helps us move beyond a narrow understanding of philanthropy as a technical process, and towards a broader conception of responsive giving.
  2. Understanding impact is essential. It is important- but often forgotten- that philanthropists must be clear on the impact they are trying to achieve before looking for ways to measure it. Developing an evidence-based theory of change is a great way to think this through (the E. Casey Foundation has a great tool for this here) and avoid confusing outputs with outcomes or goals with metrics. At this point, real measures of cost per impact (rather than cost per beneficiary) are useful- read more about CHIP’s thinking on these issues here. At times, philanthropy can make the mistake of focusing on program overhead costs or numbers of people reached, without sufficient attention to the real impact on-the-ground.
  3. Partnerships are central to success. Coordinating across the universe of actors around a given challenge is critical to ensuring that responses are effective and philanthropy is most impactful. This means thinking beyond the foundation world and being creative in terms of tools and strategies. The Mayor’s Challenge supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, for example, is an excellent demonstration of philanthropy coming together with municipal governments to amplify the process of positive change. The Council on Foundations has developed a number of other useful resources around this issue here.
  4. Results take time. Even the most impact-minded of philanthropists can be impatient to see the results of their efforts in the short-term- but real, sustainable results take time. Think of Andrew Carnegie’s efforts to support public libraries, for example- which endure over a century later. It is important to collect data in the short-term, however, both to understand impact over-time but also to show evidence that can indicate the need for public interventions or partnerships on key issues in the longer-term.
  5. Practice makes perfect. It is only relatively recently that the philanthropic community as a whole has come to embrace failure as learning process (although leaders like Paul Brest have been advocating for the idea for years). Discussions during the workshop reinforced the need for foundations to be learning organizations- flexible and adaptive in response to challenges. The Hewlett Foundation has a “worst grant contest”, for example, and the Omidyar Network now gives staff up to 10% of their budgets to try new approaches. In Philadelphia, the Barra Foundation continually emphasizes the importance of embracing risk and innovation in creative ways.

The recipe for high impact philanthropy is always going to be different, depending on the aims, stakeholders and incentives in play; but the workshop provided an excellent framework within which to place our thinking on shared issues of strategy development, understanding impact, results measurement, and effective communication. It also provided a useful forum for developing new ideas and a community for sharing challenges and successes which I look forward to being part of in the future. The nature of philanthropy is changing rapidly- but some clear principles are emerging from its practice that mirror what we are learning on-the-ground with the Accountability Lab. Non-profits that can embrace these ideas for high-impact activities will find greatest synergies with philanthropists who aim for the same outcomes.

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Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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