The Value of Focusing Your Giving - Exponent Philanthropy
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The Value of Focusing Your Giving

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Choosing which of the many worthy causes to fund is difficult, which begs the question: How bad is it to give to multiple good causes? The answer is: Not bad at all. However, when we approach charitable giving another way—How can we achieve the most with our resources?—the answer is different. That’s because getting focused is a core part of achieving impact.

4 Reasons to Focus Your Giving

If you want to maximize the impact of your resources, you’ll want to have in-depth knowledge of a topic, insight into a field, good working relationships, and more. And all of that takes time. Most foundations with few or no staff find they can only give wisely in a couple of areas.

Your foundation will benefit whether your focus is on a certain population, issue area, or strategy, or on a specific community.

Consider these compelling reasons for choosing a focus or two:

  • A focus directs your time and allows you to develop expertise—Having limited time, boards and staff have use that time wisely by centering their efforts. Focusing allows your key players to know the issues and grantees more intimately and to strategically apply their knowledge, reputations, and influence. All are equally, if not more, powerful than the foundation’s dollars.
  • A focus allows foundation leaders to communicate more effectively—You are better able to communicate what you do and why to current and potential grantees, fellow funders, elected officials, and others interested in your work. Having a focus also communicates what you don’t do, thus reducing the amount of time nonprofits spend writing requests for grants they’ll never receive.
  • A focus provides a framework for decision making—A focus in hand is a time-saver, allowing decisions about governance, grantmaking, administration, and investments to fall into place.
  • A focus creates boundaries—When seasoned foundation leaders advise newcomers, they customarily share this tip: Focus your giving. Foundation work is less overwhelming when boundaries are clear, and foundation leaders are more fulfilled when they have parameters defining the effectiveness of their work.

Making the Case to Your Board

Foundation board members may struggle with the notion of focus—and understandably so.

“Board members often engage in foundation work because it makes them feel good,” says Elizabeth Bonner Snowdon, president of Hill-Snowdon Foundation in Washington, DC. “But changing the status quo to focus doesn’t necessarily feel good. For starters, it’s difficult to say no to some wonderful organizations.”

To move the conversation about focus forward, it’s important to clarify the following:

  • You can agree on a focus—Although board members may have strong and opposing opinions, a consensus is possible. Foundation boards can often find common ground by shifting the discussion away from personal interests or grantees to focus on shared values instead.
  • You can accommodate board members with other interests—Focusing the foundation does not preclude your board from setting aside a small portion of its annual giving for discretionary grants. Many foundations allow board members and key staff to direct a portion of annual giving to organizations of their choice.
  • A focus does not prevent the foundation from being responsive—If your foundation has historically given to just about anyone who has asked, focusing will indeed be a significant change—and one that feels less responsive to certain causes. Keep in mind that your foundation can be highly responsive to community needs by learning about the most critical ones and focusing your efforts to address them. And if it’s important to your foundation, you also can set aside a small portion of funds to respond to emergencies.
  • You are not limited to a single focus—Many foundations have more than one. Just be sure that your assets, time, and energy are sufficient to achieve impact in more than one area.
  • You can experiment with focus—Initially, tentative foundations might only apply a small portion of their assets in a focused way. You can make the shift over several years to give grantees time to find new funding sources.

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