The Power of Simple Questions - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

The Power of Simple Questions

Thirteen years ago, my parents sold their telecommunications company and started a private foundation. Their earliest motivations were to avert taxes from the sale and safeguard my two brothers and me from inheriting wealth that would deter us from working for a living.

For the first 7 years, on December 27, we gathered for a family meeting, threw out a list of our favorite charities, and negotiated who would get $20,000, who might only get $15,000, and who might get nothing at all. It was all about our feelings, our intuition, and what we liked. Interestingly, over time, it became more difficult to find consensus. It became harder and harder for my father to give another $20,000 when he had no idea if past grants had made any difference.

My father started asking questions like, “What are we accomplishing? What is our impact?” My response was, “Of course, we’re doing good. We’re giving money to nonprofits we like.” That was not convincing to my father, the engineer. He wanted to know we were having impact.

Ten years into the life of the foundation, we made some big changes.

We developed a grant application process, made our first round of grants based on passion and knowledge, and even conducted site visits to see the results. Simultaneously, I attended an Exponent Philanthropy conference and became convinced that we could be doing a whole lot more with our foundation; it all had to do with thinking a lot more like my dad when it came to impact.

Although we still have a bit of a shotgun approach by focusing broadly on education and generational poverty in the Acadiana area of Louisiana, we are consistently asking, “Does this grant have potential for impact?”

Here are some of our changes:

  • Our decisions are much more informed, more logical, and not driven by emotions.
  • It’s easier to make decisions. We use a rubric to guide our decisions, using passion, potential impact, viability of the program, and overall fit in the foundation portfolio.
  • We’re more fulfilled and motivated. Our confidence in our impact leads us to give even more of ourselves. It’s great to see my dad willingly spend 9 hours at a public school in a disadvantaged area because he knows it is making a difference.
  • Our grants are helping to support systems level change. We are supporting the school district’s vision through our grants and leadership, and, although we are only one piece of the puzzle, it’s exciting to see the result of improved public schools.

Exponent Philanthropy member Nan Pugh is director of Pugh Family Foundation. Nan also works as an outdoor educator in Teton Valley, ID. When not working, she is often playing outside: skiing, climbing, paddling, or traveling.


  1. Floyd Keene

    Great article. IMO, many foundations have traveled the same journey to embrace impact.

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