“I give to people when asked, and I support a lot of different causes, but I’m not sure I’m really meaningfully involved with any causes. There is little to no organization around what I support, and I have no idea the type of impact my dollars provide.” Does this sound like you or someone you know? Rest assured, many people feel this way this, And, frankly it’s to be expected, very few people have ever received any coaching on how to make our philanthropy more organized, focused and impactful and ultimately more fulfilling. The good news is that it’s not that hard to create some structure around your philanthropy.  An easy place to start is to think about your giving as a portfolio.  You don’t give to places for all the same reasons so you can bucket your giving by different ways that you give. This creates some organization to your grantmaking and can also yield more powerful outcomes and more satisfaction to you as the grantmaker.

I generally think about two different types of giving.  The first I call relationship-based grants.  These are the gifts that you give to support causes that are near and dear to you like your alma mater, the hospital that took care of your mother, or your friend who is running the marathon.  These are mostly gifts that are given to support a relationship with a certain person or organization and are not usually given because of cause itself.  These gifts will always be a part of every giving portfolio—it is important to support the relationships that we treasure in life.  The more of these types of grants you give though the messier things become because these gifts are usually more reactive grants so we don’t spent a lot of time thinking about them. These grants make us feel good for a short time because we like to support relationships we feel strongly about, but it is hard to track the impact of these gifts and therefore hard to follow the change for good. Ultimately this type of giving can leave us feeling unfilled and wondering where all our money went.

The second type of grants are strategic grants.  These grants are given to organizations you have sought out because you believe in the focus of their work or their approach to solving a social problem.  Everyone chooses a strategic focus that speaks to them and them alone, Bill Gates has chosen to focus on issues related to global health and domestic education, in contrast the Skoll Foundation focuses on an approach to social change: social entrepreneurship and innovation.  Donors are more likely to become more deeply involved with the organizations they choose for strategic reasons and give not only money, but time, expertise, or access to networks.  When giving to a strategic organization, you are also more likely to feel fulfilled because you feel some passion around the issue or approach to solving the social issue.  With strategic grantmaking you can also more easily have an understanding of the type of impact you are having and follow the progress against some type of measure.

People often tell me that they don’t have a strategic focus or they don’t know what they are interested in, but that is totally fine.  I think of philanthropy as a journey where you learn a lot along the way.  If you don’t have a strategic focus then most of your giving right now is probably relationship-based.  You can use that giving as an opportunity to learn more about issues that might interest you.  When you give a relationship-based grant make sure to ask a few questions about the organization and their work so that you can learn more.  Maybe test out a few organizations to get involved with that you think you might be interested in and see what you think.  You can always move on if the fit isn’t right.  A strategic focus can be quite specific, “I give to organizations that focus on early childhood interventions in Boston” to broad “I am interested in issues related to poverty.”  The most important thing you can do to help find a focus is to pause and think about your philanthropy.  Reflect on what you are learning.  You don’t need a destination in mind, but you need to be willing to move to take the next step. As you move through your own philanthropic journey you will likely find that your focus may change a bit and will likely narrow as you learn more about the issues.

I have found that it is a relief to most people to bucket their grantmaking in this way. We give for different reasons and when we bucket we can understand why.  I have also found that people find excitement and motivation in the idea that philanthropy is a journey.  You don’t need to know all the answers at anyone point—no one does.  Instead check in with yourself and make sure you are still moving and learning.  Stop and ask yourself what’s next? Over time, the idea is that more and more of your grantmaking with be strategic and less will be relationship-based.  Along the way your giving will also hopefully become more organized, more impactful, and ultimately more fulfilling.