The desire to give back and help others is one of our most ennobling instincts. The satisfaction of seeing our efforts make a tangible difference is one of our greatest rewards. If you are beginning to explore philanthropy, or if you are reassessing your ongoing efforts, the question you may be asking yourself is what you need to get from having a desire to making a difference.
It’s tempting to jump directly into the complexities of philanthropy, such as the numerous worthy causes, the many styles of giving, and the wide range of financial structures for sustaining your efforts. Our advice is to step back momentarily and consider the three essential foundations for any philanthropic effort: passion, purpose, and action.
Essential #1: Passion is Fuel
Philanthropy is a commitment of money, time, and effort. Without passion, even the best-intentioned efforts may be unsustainable. What motivates you? What is your inspiration? What do you want to dedicate yourself, your family, and your resources to achieving?
For some families, the answer is evident from the outset. They may have a history of giving or have deeply shared beliefs that lend themselves to philanthropic works. Other families may need to explore the possibilities. Finding your passion may require reflection, discussion, and prioritizing among the various prospects. Here are three questions to help spark the conversations:
What do you want your family to be known for?
The family names Mayo, Pew, and Guggenheim have become synonymous with philanthropic efforts. If you could choose a single, powerful legacy to be associated with your family name, what would it be? Set aside logistics for the moment and allow yourself to be visionary.
Can you inspire multigenerational passion?
There are financial structures that may sustain multigenerational efforts. But what about multigenerational passion? Drawing younger and rising generations into family philanthropy may mean listening to them and being open to new ideas and potential paths that you may not have considered on your own.
Are you hands-on, person-to-person, or big-picture?
How you want to pursue your vision may be just as much a part of your passion as the causes you choose. For example, does your vision for fighting homelessness include swinging a hammer on a building site, working one-on-one with families, or organizing logistics? Build your approach around your vision.
Essential #2: Purpose is Direction
Passion is about vision and inspiration. Purpose narrows your focus by defining a tangible objective for your passion. For example, ending world hunger may be your passion. But your immediate purpose in service of that passion may be feeding people in the community, funding sustainable farming in the Third World, or raising awareness to inspire action.
The more precise your purpose and the more grounded it is by insight, the more likely you will find success and satisfaction. Purpose is ongoing and can be redefined, expanded, or refocused within your passion as your efforts evolve. Be ready to do some investigating by:
Engage with people already pursuing related philanthropy.
Seek out the benefit of their experience, including their thoughts on philanthropy in general and the specific challenges and opportunities in the areas you want to explore.
Talking to volunteers on the ground.
Talk to people doing frontline work. What have they discovered? What do they see as needs or gaps in ongoing efforts? Ask them what people on the outside don’t understand or may find surprising.
Digging into the research.
This may be a compelling way to involve the rising generation. Ask them to read research into the issues published by foundations, academics, and other sources. Ask them to help identify needs and opportunities.
Essential # 3: Action is Getting There
Action turns the fuel of passion and the direction of purpose into the first steps of the journey. Action may include the logistics of how you intend to pursue your efforts, the financial structures you may create to sustain them, or how you plan to measure success.
In other words, action is where the journey can get complicated. As with any journey, GPS can keep you moving in the right direction. Consider creating a mission statement as your GPS.
A mission statement that captures your passion, defines your purpose, and maps out the action is more than a valuable exercise. It’s a critical tool for creating clarity. You can (and should) develop mission statements for any public foundation you establish to pursue your philanthropy. Still, you can also start closer to home by crafting a family statement that can get everyone aligned.