Five Barriers to Focus and Ways to Push Past Them - Exponent Philanthropy
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Five Barriers to Focus and Ways to Push Past Them

In our many conversations with funders, we hear that finding a focus—for all or part of your giving—is the most fundamental step you can take on a journey toward fulfilling philanthropy.

Focusing at least part of your giving is not only powerful, it’s critical. Our communities desperately need new solutions to social challenges. We need funders who are willing to dig deep into an issue, learn everything they can, ask good questions, and take smart risks. And nonprofits need partners to learn with them, tackle issues with them, and develop new ideas with them. Being this type of partner takes focus.

What is a foundation’s most compelling focus?

We think it lies at the intersection of values and passions, community needs, and your unique dollar and non-dollar resources. And we think every funder can move toward it.

This past fall, we convened eight funders interested in focusing their giving. Over the course of our 7 months together, we named several rationalizations for not focusing. We share five below, accompanied by some ways to move past them.

Misconception: Good deeds and good intentions will lead to good results. We may convince ourselves that acts of kindness and altruistic desires allow us to operate outside life’s realities. Unfortunately, success in philanthropy requires the same effort as success in any other realm: concentrated energy, willpower, and resources. In short, good philanthropy takes discipline and hard work.

Solution: Ask your board members and staff to consider how real change occurs. Engage in a dialogue—led by a consultant or someone at your foundation—to challenge assumptions about success in philanthropy and inspire them to have a greater vision for what’s possible with focused effort. We are happy to connect you with fellow members who can make this case.

Misconception: Mere interest in a field (and some money) are sufficient. One piece is missing here: the work that underlies good philanthropic decisions. Effective, fulfilling philanthropy is grounded in deep knowledge that allows you to define what you want to achieve, surface multiple options, and make careful and informed choices. But, without a focus, you aren’t likely to know where—or aren’t likely to have the time—to go deep.

Solution: Discuss the qualities of good decision making—Keys to Making a Good Decision suggests eight steps—and commit to informed philanthropic decisions. Not every decision has to result from a multistep process, of course, but decisions about strategies and goals should be grounded in reality (e.g., data, community or field needs, feasible solutions). In how many areas can you fund and still uphold that standard?

Misconception: We want our philanthropy to be easy (and feel good). Choosing to focus all or part of your giving isn’t always easy. It can be difficult to find common ground with those involved in your philanthropy—at least initially. It can be uncomfortable to say no to a cause outside your chosen area of focus, especially a friend’s cause or a campaign you’ve supported in the past. And progress may be slower than you might prefer early on as you realign your priorities and ramp up in a chosen area.

And yet we hear from many Exponent Philanthropy members that short-term discomfort is worth it. Great resources and tools can help even disparate personalities come to agreements, and, with a focus in hand, it actually becomes easier to say no. Saying no is required less often too, as people come to know your cause. More important, what is fulfilling trumps what is easy.

Shares Ashley Blanchard of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation in Washington, DC, “We decided we wanted to move the needle on something and chose a field in which no one had any particular expertise. The experience of learning about an issue together and seeing real change has been very compelling; we’re more collaborative as a result.”

Solution: Consider as a group what would make your work fulfilling. Are people intellectually engaged? Equipped to make good decisions? Then discuss how focus may help—and the opportunity cost of not focusing. What could you accomplish with a focus, and what could be lost if you don’t? Also consider ways to ease the transition to a focus area, including setting aside discretionary funds, divesting of favorite charities over the course of several years, choosing two areas of focus to serve divergent interests, or hiring a consultant to help facilitate difficult discussions.

Misconception: Independent from market forces, we don’t have to focus. Businesses and public charities alike are keenly aware that they must produce or else cease to exist. They must identify their niche and perform well, or surrender to others who outperform. And make no mistake: Market forces are pushing foundations to make the best use of their dollars too, but they aren’t affecting balance sheets. They’re written in the headlines local newspapers: Homeless Shelter Closes Due to Lack of Support. They’re seen on the faces of children when a favorite teacher dies of cancer at age 40. And they’re communicated in high school graduation rates of failing schools. Market forces are persistent, and they’re telling philanthropists that solutions are needed now.

Solution: Connect your board members and staff with these market forces by going on site visits or bringing nonprofits or field experts into the board room. Get to know the people behind the headlines and data, and allow their stories to compel you to act.

Misconception: Finding a focus takes time we just don’t have. Arriving at the right focus for your philanthropy is a process that demands time for reflection, meaningful discussion, learning about a field, building relationships, and trial and error. Yet it’s hard for most of us to think about how to add another thing to our plate.

Solution: Within the time currently allocated to a foundation-related activities, prioritize finding a focus. For example, instead one-year grants, transition to multiyear ones, then use time in the second or third year to refine your focus. Task your investment committee with the quarterly investment review that normally takes up three hours of your board meeting, then facilitate a discussion on focus instead. Or engage a consultant to help with background research or building buy-in to get the work done efficiently.

Sara BeggsSenior Program Director Sara Beggs focuses her time and energy on Exponent Philanthropy’s Getting to Impact Initiative, an effort to equip philanthropists with the information and inspiration to achieve greater impact over time. Her greatest philanthropic joy is participation in Blooming Kids for Kindness, a group of ten families who encourage their children to care about their communities and recognize that each can make a difference through local and international volunteer and fundraising activities.


  1. […] 1. Choose a focus. A focus allows funders to accumulate experience, knowledge, and contacts; align activities toward a common goal; spend time working on what is meaningful to them; and better assess progress, make adjustments, stay on track, and see impact. See the post Five Barriers to Focus and Ways to Push Past Them >> […]

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