The Path to Impact

Exponent Philanthropy members demonstrate time and again that three ingredients help their giving achieve more: passion, intentionality, and a love of learning. In short, when the three combine, bigger and better things happen.

What is the impact of your giving? Are you achieving the results you intend from your investments of dollars and time?

In recent years, with support from Exponent Philanthropy, 70 thoughtful, committed member volunteers known as Exponent Philanthropy’s Impact Working Group (see Impact and Evaluation) have explored the path to impact in small-staff philanthropy and contributed to publications, seminars, and other resources to make achieving impact more accessible to fellow funders.

We’re grateful for their ongoing efforts and delighted to share some of the group’s insights here — and throughout this issue. We hope they will help to put your giving on a path to the impact you intend.

Impact Takes Passion

Passion has many definitions and connotations, and, when harnessed for good as in philanthropy, it is certainly powerful. In fact, it allows many funders to overcome common barriers to impact. Those who care deeply about a cause tend to press on when challenges seem insurmountable, do the hard work to make real change, and refuse to settle for what the authors of Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results call satisfactory underperformance, or “accepting things as they are without really pushing toward what might be possible.”

Some funders automatically have passions based on life experiences. Take Exponent Philanthropy member Jane Justis of The Leighty Foundation. Anyone who knows Jane knows she is passionate about volunteerism. Not only does she provide funding to help nonprofits engage volunteers, she sits on national boards that promote volunteerism, trains nonprofits on how to use volunteers effectively, and more. Spend a few minutes with Jane, and you’ll be convinced that volunteers are a hugely untapped resource in the nonprofit sector.

Other funders have yet to explore their passions, or hesitate to apply them to their giving. In either case, passion can be connected to your giving — even in cases where board members’ passions are diverse — by learning more deeply about issues, looking for common ground among board members, and seeing your focused investments make a real difference. The Exponent Philanthropy member Thomson Family Foundation, for example, identified family as a common value. This shared value evolved into the following foundation focus: supporting families working to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Now the foundation helps families increase their economic success and security by supporting community-based initiatives that improve access to education and asset-building resources and services. Increasingly, board members and staff are seeing results in their work, and this feeds their determination to press on.

Keep in mind: Although it is tempting to think you can be truly passionate about multiple causes, the truth of the matter is this: passion must be fed, or it will diminish. You feed passion by developing deep knowledge about a topic, connecting with those you’re seeking to help, researching effective strategies, and building good working relationships with nonprofits — a set of actions that takes significant time.

Most funders find they can be truly passionate about only one or two things.

Impact Takes Intentionality

Intentional funders are conscious, deliberate, purposeful, and thoughtful. They know that achieving impact takes knowledge, planning, tough choices, good relationships, and investing more than money. Here are some additional insights on each of these factors.

Intentionality in understanding the context — Just as a business assesses its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, a successful funder understands the environment in which it operates. It is critical to grasp the key players, field dynamics, funding sources, effective strategies, gaps, and more. For tips on where to start, see our resources on scanning the landscape at

Intentionality in defining a road map — Funders who achieve impact typically outline a clear plan to achieve particular goals and intentionally apply their dollars and time according to that plan. They also make adjustments as needed, assess their results, and use that learning in the next round of planning and implementation.

To develop a plan for your giving, you must start with the end in mind. Ask, If we are successful in the work we care about, what will success look like? Once defined, you can work backward, asking, What must happen before that can be achieved? And before that? And before that? This iterative process helps funders consider the pathway to their intended impact and the focus for their investments. It also requires funders to learn a bit more about their area of interest with each iteration, dig deeper into the opportunities and challenges, and wrestle with the many ways to take action. The process can be time-consuming and challenging, but Exponent Philanthropy members know from experience that it is well worth the effort.

As an example, here is the road map of the Exponent Philanthropy member Johnson Scholarship Foundation, a private foundation focused on helping Native Americans obtain business education and employment:

If we are successful in our work, what will success look like? Native American-owned and operated businesses start, thrive, and produce jobs in Native American communities.

But before that vision of success can occur, what must happen? Native Americans must have sufficient education and resources to start and maintain businesses in those communities.

And for Native Americans to have sufficient education and resources, what must happen? Tribal colleges must manage and grow scholarship programs, and strengthen financial literacy / entrepreneurship programs; and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) must provide low-interest loans to Native Americans.

And so on, until the foundation arrives at its chosen strategies of investing in scholarship programs, financial literacy programs, and CDFIs.

See our resource “Getting to Impact Through Planning” for step-by-step guidance on defining your foundation’s road map.

Intentionality in building relationships — Relationships between funders and grantees are traditionally full of complex power dynamics that have the potential to hinder impact. Funders can work to level the playing field by:

  • Communicating mission and guidelines clearly to grantseekers
  • Making themselves available to answer questions
  • Respecting grantseekers’ time by keeping application and reporting requirements minimal
  • Appreciating that funders need grantees to accomplish their missions (some funders use the term grantee partner to connote respect for a grantee’s role)
  • Having humility.

There is also great power in relationships with fellow funders and other usual and “unusual” suspects who may be able to help your foundation achieve its goals, such as policymakers, voters, educators, and many other individuals, organizations, networks, and systems. Rarely can a lone funder achieve lasting impact.

Intentionality in applying more than money — Funders are increasingly aware that financial resources are just one of their many assets, and, in many cases, one of the smaller ones. To achieve greater impact, you must employ all your resources: dollars, influence, reputation, connections, knowledge, experience, and the power to convene.

Impact Takes a Love of Learning

Simply put, funders who love to learn — either formally or informally in any of the following ways — are more successful in achieving impact:

  • Loving to learn about the real experiences of their favorite nonprofits
  • Loving to learn about new or unusual strategies for improved results
  • Loving to learn about a fellow foundation’s chosen grant strategy.

A love of learning can also manifest in the use of simple evaluation techniques. Once funders know what they want to achieve and their chosen path for getting there, they can follow a series of straightforward steps to gather simple data, consider the results, and incorporate the learning into their next round of planning and giving.

Take, for example, The John Gogian Family Foundation. Asking a simple question on a grant application and looking for trends in the responses revealed a critical gap in the larger funding structure. Previously, organizations could apply to state and county agencies to support the testing of new programs. As public funds decreased, the government agencies moved to support only proven programs. As a result, it was difficult for organizations to start new programs — no matter how effective they might be.

Based on this information, the foundation made a slight change to its funding strategy. To help organizations prove their programs and access larger sources of public funding, it began to fund worthy pilot programs. The foundation has already funded two local organizations, which have now secured public funding.

See our resource “Getting to Impact Through Evaluation" for a 5-step evaluation process that can provide your foundation with similarly helpful data.

Communities across the country and around the world are seeking funders to partner with them for increased impact. Will you be among them?

See our resource “Getting to Impact Through Evaluation" for a 5-step evaluation process that can provide your foundation with similarly helpful data.