Try These 7 Methods to Get to a Giving Focus - Exponent Philanthropy
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Try These 7 Methods to Get to a Giving Focus

Exponent Philanthropy recently revised The Foundation Guidebook, our signature publication for those new to foundations or philanthropy. Below is an excerpt from the 128-page resource. Get your copy >>

Many foundations use a combination of methods to settle on a focus. Once you consider the approaches that follow, it is important to recognize when you may need help. Some boards are able to facilitate productive discussions themselves, but others have greater success by engaging outside facilitators. Because agreement on a focus is of paramount importance, money for a consultant, if needed, is money well spent.

Board members often must do the hard work of clarifying their own values and passions before they can articulate them for the entire board. Don’t be surprised if it takes more than one meeting to arrive at consensus on a focus.

The following are some drivers for finding a common focus among decision makers.


Some boards develop a focus built on common passions. Because those passions often are based on emotional connections, the following questions can help you uncover them:

  • About whom or what do you care deeply?
  • What excites you or brings you the greatest joy?
  • What angers you or breaks your heart?
  • What do you believe drives change?
  • Has an event significantly shaped who you are or what you believe?

Common Values

Even individuals with outwardly polarized views can hold similar values, and, once found, those values can lead to a unifying focus. Uncover shared values by asking questions such as:

  • What is critical for an individual to become a productive member of society?
  • What was key to your becoming the successful and productive person you are today?
  • What values guide your life choices?

Resources to help you identify shared values include: 21/64’s Motivational Values CardsThe Values Edge System, and the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers’ Personal Values Card Sort.

Once your board has identified core values through key questions, group exercises, or other means, it can begin to articulate a focus based on those values.

Critical Community Needs

Although board members may have their own—often well-informed—visions for a community, it can be helpful to hear from the community about its needs. With awareness of the community’s voice, board members can craft a focus that also incorporates board members’ interests, strengths, and skills.

For example, Tracy Family Foundation’s board members shared common interests in education, family, and youth. After completing a community needs assessment that pointed to numerous critical needs, it became clear that education needed to become the foundation’s primary focus. Its interests in family and youth would be addressed as secondary foci.

If board members have difficulty finding commonality in community needs, consider choosing a focus that is new for all members. For example, The Tow Foundation found great power in group ownership of an unfamiliar but critical focus: juvenile justice.

Donor Legacy

If your donor—living or deceased—has expressed interest in a particular focus, consider how you might respect that wish. In the best scenarios, boards create a focus that also resonates with current board members. Even if the donor’s interests are narrow, board members can still find fulfillment by looking deeper for values they share with the donor.

The Hau’oli Mau Loa Foundation’s donor had no desire to constrict foundation decisions, but, to help future directors, she did share her motivations for establishing the foundation. In a letter, she explained her two areas of interest: bringing hope to those less fortunate, especially children, and environmental conservation. Following her death, the directors used those interests—and the values the donor exemplified—to settle on the foundation’s focus areas and the way staff would do their work.

Meaningful Grants

Foundations often uncover a focus by reviewing past grants. Look for grants that have addressed a particularly meaningful cause, have stood out because of impressive results, or have made board members proud. As Nan Pugh of Pugh Family Foundation said, “For 7 years, we simply made grants to nonprofits we liked. When we looked back at those programs, we realized that most dealt with poverty and education in southern Louisiana. Now our mission is to support organizations that address education and anti-poverty efforts within the Acadiana community.”

A Single Strategy

Some foundations find focus via a single but powerful strategy. This approach allows a foundation to gain expertise that can be leveraged across issue areas. For example, The Fledgling Fund focuses on improving the lives of vulnerable individuals, families, and communities by supporting innovative media projects that target entrenched social problems.

Populations of Interest

Think about the populations that interest you. For example, your foundation may want to focus on improving a particular aspect of life for elderly people or for children. After defining a focus or two, some foundations are able to articulate an intended impact in each focus area. They can clearly envision what success will look like if they address the challenges of that focus effectively. Doing this in the early stages can shape every other aspect of your foundation’s work from administration to your board. It is not typical for most foundations to have this type of clarity, though, without digging deeper and learning more about the field of focus.

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