Mapping Change: Discovering Your Giving Niche

Effective and meaningful family philanthropy channels a family’s passions, interests, beliefs, values, and resources for a social good. Maintaining this delicate balance between private values and public virtue can position giving families for their most inspiring and innovative grants, but it also places them at the sometimes confusing intersection of a number of public and private initiatives. Whether your giving supports geographic communities, specific issues, or both, the questions are the same: Which nonprofits are doing great work? What are other funders contributing? What is the role of government? What is ultimately the right role for my family? How do I find out? And between increased media and regulatory scrutiny and a giving family’s desire to make a substantive, positive difference in the lives of others, the answers become all the more important.

It might be helpful to pause and consider how change is happening in your own backyard–what are the needs? What kind of work is taking place? Who’s doing it? Where and how can my family be involved? This month’s Family Giving News presents an exercise in mapping your philanthropic field of endeavor, helping you to understand what’s going on in the communities in which you give and to pinpoint opportunities for impact.

Creating a Map

Conceptually mapping what’s going on in your chosen field can be extraordinarily helpful, whether embarking on a new philanthropic venture or evaluating an existing program. Such a map can be as simple or as complex as is helpful. At a minimum, some funds are simply looking to keep in touch with what’s happening on the ground. At the high end, some institutional funders employ social network analysis to understand the relationships at work in a given program area. Much good work can be done between these extremes.

Few expect philanthropists to be experts in the fields in which they give, although some have become so. What is expected is being the best possible steward of philanthropic funds. Mapping out who’s who in your fields of interest can help your family decide what that might mean. Your map should include several elements:

  • Your Family: As Charles Collier, Senior Philanthropic Advisor at Harvard University and National Center Board Member, points out in his book, Wealth in Families, most philanthropic families tend concentrate on their financial capital, neglecting the human, intellectual, and social capital that also comprise the true wealth of the family. What motivates family members’ giving, both individually and collectively? What does your family have that few other families have quite the way yours does? This can be a shared faith commitment, financial or technical expertise, or valuable social connections. Start with those most closely involved with the family’s philanthropy and work outward to those not as involved or participating in the family philanthropy for the first time. What is it that your family can offer? Consider holding a special family meeting or conducting a board retreat to discuss the family’s various kinds of wealth and interests.
  • Nonprofits: Your giving map should include nonprofits working in your chosen field. Begin with current grantees, and work to include potential grantees and other nonprofits doing interesting work in the arts, environment, or education. Among your best resources for finding nonprofits working in your chosen field are community foundations, regional associations, and your local United Way. Inquire about nonprofits doing interesting work with these institutions; their geographic focus certainly gives them a special insight. Organizations like Guidestar, the Catalogue for Philanthropy, Charity Navigator, and theAmerican Institute of Philanthropy can help you identify and evaluate nonprofits as well.
  • Other Funders: Include other philanthropies as well. Who else is working with your grantees? Where is the money for these activities coming from? Individual donors? Other foundations and funds? Perhaps, the government? Again, community foundations and regional associations are a tremendous resource for who’s funding what. Affinity groups, groups of funders united around an issue area as opposed to support for a region, are also important venues for connecting with donors with similar interests.
  • Government: In areas like education, the environment, and health care, the influence of the government is undeniable. In other areas, the government might be less involved, but local, state, and federal authorities are often very attuned to community needs or, at the very least, expert archivists of them. Which regulatory agencies affect policy in your grantmaking area? Which government programs provide monies? Know the agencies that affect policy in your fields of interest and the representatives who represent you and the communities in which you give. Make contact to inform them of your efforts and to obtain another perspective on the issues.
  • The Community: Given philanthropy’s incredible and increasing diversity, you may not encounter the most innovative or compelling projects on your first pass. If possible, your map should extend to the frontiers of your giving area and include the larger community that may not necessarily be connected to larger, more prominent institutions. For some, this means staying on top of the latest news and research in a given field. For others, this means volunteering in the community to see things firsthand. For still others, it takes the form of an online survey or sponsoring a convening of nonprofit heads, donors, government officials, and community representatives to come to a shared understanding of a situation.

However you go about finding out who’s who–retreats, conversations, convenings, online research, or utilizing the increasingly diverse philanthropic infrastructure–make sure your map includes a sense of these five elements. Note the legal, financial, programmatic and personal connections between organizations. The result should be a web-like model of your chosen program area.

Discovering Opportunities

With the basic outline of your map in place, begin to ask questions about your place in it:

  • What does my family philanthropy have to offer, both financially and otherwise?
  • What are the needs in the community? Where can we meet community needs?
  • Where are some needs better met?
  • Are these organizations tightly knit or only loosely affiliated? How often do these organizations communicate?
  • Where are the gaps? What aren’t donors funding as much as they might? What could people be doing differently?
  • Who is working on similar initiatives? Where are there opportunities for collaboration? Where might we connect nonprofits and funders?
  • Where are the network’s strengths? Where is the network comparatively weak?

The answers to these questions can help orient your foundation or fund within your overall map, allowing your philanthropy to capitalize on its unique strengths to address a gap in service or bring something new to the network. Consider making these questions a part of your fund’s everyday activity. Consider, for instance, inviting community members or nonprofit leaders to serve as advisory committee members, or even as staff, board members, or successor advisors.

Exploring the Frontier

Giving is a matter of connecting people to resources, ideas, and to one another. But given the complexity of some of the social networks in which we live and give, it might seem as though there is very little that can bring all of the disparate groups in our maps together. There is, however, one thing they all have in common: they’re all connected in one way or another to you.