More Than Money
Issue #26

Effective Giving

Table of Contents

“Sorting It All Out - What is Effective Giving”

One of India's most revered spiritual texts, the Mahabharata, asserts that a gift of any size given to "the right person at the right time, with a pure spirit, will yield endless fruits hereafter."

This timeless counsel on effective giving offers intriguing advice for those of us who want to make our giving more effective; but who is the right person (or organization) and what is the right time to give? And how do we maintain a pure spirit (or intention)?

The task, it seems, is not so easy. The question is: Can it get any easier? And if so, how?

Some years ago, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on translation. I had students, professional translators, and people who had grown up bilingually think aloud about their process as they produced a written translation. One finding surprised me: When given as much time as they needed, it was the bilinguals and translators-those with the most knowledge of both languages - not the students, who took the most time and had the most "trouble" translating the text, even though they produced better translations. In an important way, the task was harder for them, because they knew too much. Even when they chose the same word the students had selected, they considered many more options, struggling with the inadequacy of the language to express subtle nuances, before "settling" for the word they considered the lesser of many evils. The students, in contrast, simply picked the first word they found in the dictionary entry.

Whenever I presented these findings to translators or advanced language students, I was met with sighs of relief and gratitude. "No wonder I still have trouble!" was the feeling expressed repeatedly. "There's nothing wrong with me, after all, just because I still find this challenging."

As I have delved into the topic of effective giving, the memory of the bilingual translators has come to me often. In so many things in life, we expect that as we learn more and become more experienced, it will all get easier. The lesson of the bilingual translators is that it's simply not so. As we become more proficient, we take in more information and process our decisions at much higher levels of complexity.

And so it is with philanthropy. When interviewing people for this issue, I was struck by the levels of complexity inherent in the giving process-and the subtle ways that different individuals have of handling them. The dynamic tensions among choices are many: How strategic should I be? Do I create specific goals and strategies to achieve them-or do I give from my heart, trusting what's good and capable in the organizations and people I donate to, and my own impulse to be generous? To determine outcomes, are my informal observations enough or do I need more formal measures-and how do I decide what those should be? Is it more effective to give to many projects or to concentrate my resources on a few? What benefits are there to giving to individuals vs. organizations? Do I want to support what is already good in the world or fund groups working on change? How do I know what's effective and how does my own satisfaction fit into that equation? Do I give primarily to transform myself or to benefit others? Is bigger better in philanthropy or is small the way to go? How does my own attitude when giving influence my effectiveness?

The questions seem endless, and their answers not easy to come by. But there is a way to find clarity. As I have spoken with people about giving, I have noticed an important key: the references they make to the learning process. How often people say or imply that the only way to learn philanthropy is to do it. How often people talk of failure as a natural and inevitable part of learning. How reflective some people are about their own growth as a giver.

Donald Schön, in his book The Reflective Practitioner , maintains that in any field of endeavor, exceptional competence is achieved through reflection- in-action. Highly functioning individuals reflect on their actions before, during, and after they occur. They continually adjust course and self-correct, based on what they've learned from observing their own actions and their results. This was certainly true with the bilingual translators. The more reflective they were about their own choices and process while they translated, the better their translations were.

If this is so in all fields, wouldn't it also be true in philanthropy?

(anonymous author), a Jungian analyst and philanthropist, describes her own process of growth as a funder in similar terms: "For me, growing and changing as a funder is trying to stay on my own creative edge, where something is coming into being, into form; then, according to what is emerging, changing my guidelines about where I want to put money. I get ideas, put them into practice and see how they work, then modify them. I try to stay aware that I have a core set of assumptions and make them as conscious as I can to myself."

At the organizational level, the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), a private foundation that invests in businesses that provide social benefit, has built self-reflection into its venture philanthropy model in a radical way. From the outset, funder George Roberts has required rigorous selfreflection from the organization. So that REDF staff would have time to work and reflect, they did not initially give public relations interviews to the press. Only after years of reflection and learning from their failures have they begun to talk publicly about their many successes.

To become more effective philanthropists, we too can build deep selfreflection into our lives. The following are useful guidelines.

Allow time for growth and learning

The most important element in effective giving is allowing time for it- time to reflect, to learn, and to grow. Emmett Carson, CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation, observes that giving effectively "is not something that we are born knowing. We learn as we give. It's a lifelong experience." Yet so many of us don't allow ourselves the time needed for learning. Anne Slepian, co-founder of More than Money, says, "Many of us decide what to give to by sorting through appeal letters at the end of the year. But to truly give effectively requires more care and attention." As you give yourself time to become more effective, you'll likely find an added bonus: your giving will become more rewarding and fulfilling to you, too.

Examine your values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions

To whom, how, and where you give depends fundamentally on your core values, beliefs, and basic assumptions. For instance, your assumptions about how change happens will play a significant role in whether you give to political or spiritual causes, to individuals or organizations, and to many or few recipients. You can observe and reflect on your own actions to discern your actual (vs. espoused) values and beliefs; conversely, you can carefully examine your beliefs and values in order to guide your actions.

Seek opportunities for learning

Schön's model suggests that learning "on the job" with a mentor who can help you reflect on your actions is a powerful way to become a more reflective practitioner. Salvatore LaSpada, director of the Philanthropy Workshop at the Rockefeller Foundation, also recommends finding ways to learn formally about philanthropy. Such experiences can expose you to new viewpoints and give you tools to aid your reflection. You might, for example, take a course in philanthropy, read about the history of social change, or attend conferences of grantmakers who fund in your interest areas. (For a list of funders' affinity groups, contact the Council on Foundations, 202-466- 6512, You can also learn about your areas of interest from people who are not philanthropists, to gain a more inclusive perspective. Books, conferences, and websites abound for any funding area.

Fund what you love, so you'll enjoy the reflection

Because growth and effective giving require time, fund what genuinely interests you. That way, you'll be able to maintain the long-term involvement needed for learning, and you'll enjoy the process, too. Woods offers this advice: "Find an area you love, that you really care about, and that you're willing to invest in learning a lot about. The more you learn, the better funder you'll be." Slepian also notes that most of us have limited exposure across race and class and suggests that exposing yourself to new people, projects, and ideas will allow you to find new people and projects to love.

Accept failure as a natural way of learning

Allowing time for reflection makes it possible to learn from failure. Failure can then become information that lets you adjust course. Melinda Tuan, managing director of the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, says that effective philanthropy "takes a long time, a lot of patience, and you have to be very comfortable with risk. Some projects will fail rather spectacularly. Being able to take blame along with success is the mark of a really good philanthropist."

Create mechanisms for getting feedback

To reflect on effectiveness, you need information about what happened as a result of your gift. It may be as simple as talking to the recipient or observing results in the community; or it might involve asking an organization what formal measures of effectiveness they can show you. The key is finding mechanisms that let you see more clearly what resulted from your financial support and then taking the time to reflect on what you have seen.

Become part of a giving community

Tracy Gary, founder of several networks for women philanthropists, names isolation as one of the most common barriers to giving effectively. Joining a giving circle, reading publications written by practicing philanthropists, participating in the More than Money listserv, or starting your own discussion group are all ways to increase your effectiveness and your joy in giving, by reflecting with others while you give.

As I have talked with others and reflected on my own giving, I've found it reassuring to realize that we don't need to give in one particular way to be effective. Effective giving is multi-faceted, not limited to one approach. Whether we give to immediately benefit an individual or to create long-term systemic change; whether our focus is politics or spirituality; whether our giving is large or small; whether it mainly benefits ourselves or others, we can give effectively-and, chances are, we can learn to give more effectively still.

The key is to hone our own niche, based on our own values, skills, and intentions, and to engage in the kind of continual self-reflection that lets us adjust course as we go along. As Wayne Muller, founder of Bread for the Journey, says, "Every organism has its place in the ecology." (See his interview, pp. 24-27.) To find our own right place in the giving ecology, we can give ourselves the gifts of time, experience, and reflection.

--Pamela Gerloff

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