A thoughtful and strategic approach to philanthropy can help you make an outsized impact

With the festive season approaching, many of us will be taking the opportunity to spend some quality time with friends and family. It’s often a good chance to reflect on the things that really matter to us, and to talk about where we are and where we’re going with the important people in our lives. You might also be thinking about your financial plans for the year ahead, which may include your charitable giving. Whether you’re an experienced philanthropist or just starting out on your giving journey, there’s a lot to consider.

Philanthropy is about both heart and mind, and it’s important to make informed and strategic decisions to ensure your resources are deployed efficiently and effectively. Our Philanthropy Centre often brings together committed and experienced philanthropists to share learning, best practice and potential opportunities to collaborate with one another. To help guide your thoughts this festive season, we’ve condensed the wisdom gathered from these conversations into the following five lessons.

Lesson 1: Define your vision and make it a bold one

The road to strategic philanthropy begins with personal motivation. Do you want to clean the Baltic Sea? Transform literacy rates in Liberia? Provide ways for troubled families to rebuild their lives? Keep hold of that golden vision. In the words of one of the philanthropists we work with: “If you don’t know what you want to achieve, you won’t achieve it. If you aren’t clear about what success looks like, you can’t evaluate what works best and improve.”

Lesson 2: Stay humble and listen to others

Many of our philanthropists say they need to remind themselves regularly to leave their egos at the door. “Philanthropy is truly a game of humility” according to one. That’s why it’s important to speak to your beneficiaries. Trust them to tell you how they feel, where you’re failing and what is missing. At all costs, avoid becoming an over-demanding donor who doesn’t understand the realities on the ground. Another donor put it this way: “Getting out and speaking to people is the fuel for my philanthropy because engaging with the change you create gives you the passion and energy to do even more.”

Lesson 3: Use every tool in the toolkit

The nature and complexity of the issues that philanthropists seek to address mean they cannot simply be fixed with grant capital alone. Most funders we speak to devote more than just money to the causes they care about: they leverage their business and political connections, apply their financial acumen, and give their own time and energy. Many ask themselves how they can engage governments in their work to scale up their success, harness technology to multiply their impact, or use sustainable investment as another tool for impact. They also remind us that environmental considerations should make it into every decision to ensure your philanthropy doesn’t inadvertently cause harm.

Lesson 4: Find the right partners and take them along for the journey

Consider early on about who you need to take with you on the journey to solve the problems you care about. One philanthropist told us: “You might think that the right way to get buy in from others is to fund a trial, achieve great results and then parcel up your data and find your partners at this point. Not so.” She explained that it’s better to get others involved at the ideas stage, understand what success looks like for your potential partners, and take them with you from the beginning. When you’ve navigated mistakes and achieved success together on a small scale, you’ll be more likely to form a stronger partnership.

Lesson 5: If you’re not having fun then pause for thought

Philanthropy should be fulfilling and exhilarating. Sometimes it can be frustrating, particularly when progress is slow, but it should always be fun. It’s an experience that gives you the chance to explore the issues you care deeply about, meet amazing people who are trying to move the world in a positive direction, and connect with those whose lives you really can improve. If you aren’t enjoying and learning from your philanthropy, then something has gone wrong. It’s probably time to pause for breath and reconsider your approach.

There isn’t one sure-fire recipe for strategic and effective philanthropy. This article is not intended to be prescriptive or provide all the answers. The key is really to get stuck in and do something. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” We can’t give you better advice than that.

Advising you on your philanthropy is a core part of our wealth management services at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, and we think it’s important to provide you with opportunities to get together with your peers to share your experiences, challenges and learnings with one another. If you’d like to find out more about how we can help you put your philanthropic ideas into practice, then please contact your usual representative.