March 23, 2016 \ Rachel Jellinek
High Impact Philanthropy: A Strategic Approach to Making a Difference


High impact philanthropy was the topic of discussion at a recent event hosted by the Boston Philanthropic Advisors Roundtable (BPART) featuring Christine Kendall from SmarterGive. Although the information was mainly geared towards an audience of philanthropic advisors and foundations, it has relevance for other individuals and nonprofits as well.

Key Features of High Impact Philanthropy

Christine shared these key features of high impact philanthropy:

  • The focus is on making a measurable difference – a contribution that is going to have a meaningful impact on the lives of others
  • Giving is linked to evidence-based solutions
  • There is mindfulness about the tension between cost and impact – aiming to “get the biggest bang for your buck”
  • With this approach, there is a willingness to use any and all tools at one’s disposal to find solutions
  • An evaluation component is included.

Differences Between Traditional Philanthropy and High Impact Philanthropy

While a traditional philanthropist might wonder about what nonprofit to support, a high impact philanthropist poses the question, “What is the problem I want to solve and what do I need to solve it?”  While a traditional philanthropist might be thinking about check writing and grant-making, a high impact philanthropist is thinking more broadly about using a variety of tools and tactics to achieve his/her goals, including possibly doing advocacy work and convening nonprofits, funders, government entities, businesses and other community members to collaborate on tackling a particular challenge.

Christine warned of “peanut butter” or “confetti” philanthropy where you spread your money around or sprinkle a bunch of different organizations with gifts. It is really hard to know what impact you are making with this approach.

Taking a Portfolio Approach to Philanthropy

She recommends taking a portfolio approach to philanthropy.  She suggested setting aside 15% for gifts that relate to your personal and professional relationships (e.g., friends who ask you to sponsor them at races or buy tickets for an event).  Set aside another 15% for gifts that are relevant to particular communities or geography that you care about (e.g., responses to natural disasters, gifts to your alma mater).  These buckets are ones that you won’t necessarily track for impact.  Then the 70% that remains is for your high impact philanthropy approach that is guided by asking the following questions:

  • Why do you want to give?
  • What kind of unique change do you want to achieve?
  • Who is involved with your giving?
  • What are your core values?
  • How do you want to know your philanthropy is achieving its intended results?
  • What assets do you want to bring to the table?
  • What are you willing to leverage to have an impact?
  • What existing external experience and relationships do you have?
  • What levers or mechanisms do I want to access to drive change?

Photo: Matias Garabedian