Recently, I led a discussion about the best ways to get started as a philanthropist with the members of GiveArlington, a giving circle of young professionals in Arlington, VA. The event (hosted by George Mason University’s Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy) served as a reminder that no matter the level of resources you may have to give, the essential elements of grant making remain the same: establish goals, learn from others, and accept missteps as part of the process. What’s more, these elements are helpful for even seasoned philanthropists to review on the outset of each new philanthropic endeavor to ensure a thoughtful and realistic plan is in place.
1. Establish your goals. Setting goals for what you want to achieve with your philanthropy will provide direction and help you narrow your interests. These goals should reflect your passions and values. To help determine what they might be, ask yourself a few questions:
- What gets you excited and/or aggravated when reading/watching the news?
- What types of organizations (for-profit or nonprofit) do you admire? Why?
- Have you ever given money following a specific appeal? What inspired you?
Consider creating personal vision and mission statements to guide your philanthropy and serve as a reminder of what you hope to achieve. Since real and lasting change can take time, it is helpful to establish benchmarks so that you can see your progress. It’s also wise to build in time to reflect on your goals so you can adjust course if necessary.
2. Learn from others. Chances are, you won’t be tackling a previously unaddressed challenge with your philanthropy. Take the time to do research: use philanthropic websites, such as GuideStar, Foundation Center, and others, to seek out funders who are addressing the issues that interest you. Find out what approaches they take, why they take them, and what has worked and not worked along the way. In addition, nonprofits love the opportunity to speak about their work and they can be some of your best sources of information. Call them up and find out what they do, why they do it, and—especially if they operate in a smaller community—who else is working on the same issue.
3. Don’t be discouraged by missteps. The challenges nonprofits address are not easy to solve and they often need to employ experimental approaches without fear of losing funding. Corporations write off mistakes and poor investments; allow the nonprofits you support to do the same, provided you have faith in their ability to apply what they’ve learned from their mistakes going forward. If it appears as if an organization is making the same mistakes repeatedly, talk to someone on the inside and get a better understanding of what is going on before continuing to invest.
Above all else, your philanthropy should be meaningful to you, so that the time you invest will be rewarding. And if you engage strategically, the impact you helped create will be all the more satisfying.
Diana Tyler is an associate director at Arabella. She provides strategic guidance, grant-making expertise, and operations support to Arabella’s family and individual clients. Find her on Twitter at @DianaITyler.