Finding Your Focus in International Philanthropy

Author: 
Maggi Alexander
Nov 17, 2017
Theme: 
Global Philanthropy

Last month I led a panel discussion about international philanthropy hosted by Ropes & Gray as part of the Leading By Example series. The series promotes best practices in charitable giving, and TPI’s Center for Global Philanthropy was delighted there is so much interest in conversations about lessons learned in global giving.

Donors of all shapes and sizes are recognizing that the most pressing problems facing communities around the world today are complex, multifaceted, and often interconnected, including issues such as human rights, climate change, poverty, health, forced migration, refugees, human trafficking, peace and security. As a result, more donors are seeking ways to address issues that impact their local communities and communities halfway around the globe. Donors are discovering the tremendous impact their philanthropy can have when they give beyond their borders. According to Giving USA, giving to international affairs is the fastest growing subsector of US charitable giving, having increased by an average rate of 8% per year for the past six years. In 2016, 6% of total US charitable giving—$22.03 billion—went to international affairs organizations.

International philanthropy presents its own set of challenges and hurdles, but funders are learning how to become better partners with their grantees, address cultural differences and power dynamics, manage and mitigate against risks, and leverage their resources contributing to greater social change. Take, for example, our panelists from last month’s event – two philanthropists who are making a difference in communities around the world – Karen Keating Ansara (Ansara Family Fund and New England International Donors) and Steven Fox (Remmer Family Foundation). Karen and Steven shared their personal and families’ journeys in international philanthropy – steep learning curves, tough lessons learned, and unexpected highlights. Karen started her journey with a well-intentioned but impractical bag of stuffed animals sent to Ecuador; today she uses her transformative giving portfolio to partner with local, grassroots organizations in the countries she supports. Steven started his journey as a young child with regular family meetings about how to give away a portion of his savings; today he’s leading environmental stewardship efforts of his family’s foundation with a focus on improving the sustainability of the world’s fisheries. Both of these stories are quite different, yet they share one key element: each has worked toward a strategic, thoughtful, and values-based focus for their giving.

We have found over years of working with many TPI clients that donors often struggle with being “an inch deep and a mile wide” in their giving. Finding your philanthropic focus may seem daunting for both new and seasoned donors alike, especially in an international context. But it’s a key step toward helping yourself, your family, or your foundation develop a coherent, strategic plan that can lead to greater effectiveness and fulfillment. We find that breaking the process down into simple, defined steps can help get you started. Here are some of our favorite tactics for helping funders narrow in on their philanthropic goals.

1. Consider Your Values and Passions

What values drive your decisions and actions? What are you most passionate about? Philanthropy is fundamentally an expression of personal values in the public space. By identifying your values, or the shared values of your family or foundation trustees, you can begin to zero in on the types of issues, approaches, and organizations that can provide both meaning for you and impact for the world. Values like social justice, courage, or hard work will serve as guideposts in your journey of defining your focus.

2. Mind the Gaps and Needs

What are other funders missing? Are there urgent needs combined with funding gaps in specific geographies, issue areas, or approaches? By taking the time to map the landscape and identify specific needs and gaps, you can find some of the most important opportunities for giving.

3. Balance Your Head and Your Heart

Giving from our heart makes philanthropy meaningful, but layering on analysis and strategy makes philanthropy effective. Build on lessons learned and seek to find the evidence base for “what works.” Take the time to consider how your giving can integrate what you find personally fulfilling with what is strategic. This is particularly pronounced in responding to disasters and humanitarian crises, when responding to both immediate needs and long-term recovery is crucial.

4. Imagine the Change You Want to Support

What would you want your personal or organizational legacy to look like? What are your most valued outcomes? Imagining how the world or your community could be improved through philanthropic gifts can help you focus your work to get there.

5. Learn, Get Support, and Collaborate

It’s true, philanthropy can be a highly personal endeavor. But we often find that the journey to identifying a philanthropic focus requires the help of outside voices. Try to engage those closest to you in the work to identify your values and interests – having someone be your mirror can be challenging but fruitful. Donor networks and affinity groups are a tremendous resource for learning, and for finding potential collaborators. And, trusted philanthropic advisors with whom you develop close and authentic relationships can help guide and encourage you with an objective view.

We are encouraged by the increasing numbers of donors that are recognizing their philanthropic portfolios can be both local and international – and that by addressing problems in a cross border and comprehensive way, they can see their philanthropy is making a real difference.

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