When I look back at my childhood, philanthropy was a central tenant in our family. However, it was never named as such. My parents told us stories of how their own parents took care of their extended families and contributed to their communities. Through these stories and their own actions, my parents instilled in us the importance of giving back, or paying it forward. In my parent’s case, actions spoke louder than words; they rarely verbalized the importance of giving back. Instead, they embodied this value in their actions, both large and small.
So when my parents decided to create a family foundation, there was very little discussion: it was simply the logical next step, a way to formalize what they had already been doing for years. A few years in, however, my parents decided that perhaps there was a way to run the foundation that would allow them to be more impactful in their philanthropy. Prior to this, they had been primarily writing checks to organizations they or their friends felt strongly about. These were all good causes, but they realized they weren’t sure of the impact their dollars were having. When I joined my family’s foundation, my father expressed a desire to be more strategic in our philanthropy, with the purpose of being able to point to what value, if any, our philanthropy was adding to society.
Tasked with the responsibility of creating a strategic focus for the foundation, I realized that I had to take a step back and understand how my family’s values and beliefs informed their philanthropy.
This, in turn, would inform what we thought of as “success” or “impact.” Combining our values and beliefs with our skill sets as a family gave us the framework for how we would approach our philanthropy.
The initial questions I posed to my parents may seem rudimentary, but their responses and the discussions those questions prompted were crucial to building a strategy that we felt passionate about and believed in. I asked questions that were broad in scope:
- Why do you feel philanthropy is important?
- What opportunities in your lives were crucial to your own success?
- What do you believe is most fundamental in creating opportunity for others?
- What unique role do you think we can play as a family foundation?
I also asked a question I think is often overlooked: is there a form of philanthropy that you are not interested in participating in?
From the discussions following these questions, we decided to focus the initial efforts of the foundation in India, where my parents grew up and where they felt they had been given the building blocks and opportunities to be successful in life. We realized that while the ultimate, overarching goal for our philanthropy was to reduce poverty, we also believed strongly as a family that access to quality healthcare and education drives opportunity, and that lack of access in these areassets off a lifetime of inequality. Grounding these views in research cemented our decision to focus our philanthropy on health and education initiatives in India.
Settling on a geographic and sector focus was an initial step towards strategy, but thousands of NGOs met these criteria. We needed to create more specific parameters to guide our grantmaking, so I looked back to the discussion points that came out of those initial broad questions.
During our discussions, we had come to the realization that, as a family foundation in a sea of much larger funders, we could achieve impact through identifying and funding scalable models. As a family foundation, we have more freedom to take risks than large multilateral funders; we felt that we could be impactful by considering our grant dollars as risk capital to support earlier stage organizations that had the potential to scale across India. The goal would be to provide earlier stage local organizations or NGOs that were new to India with funding and capacity-building support to achieve some success and scale, thus building a track record and ideally drawing in larger funders. Measurement would be a crucial part of this, so that we and our grantees could assess progress. So, focusing on work that was measurable and scalable became a critical component of our strategy.
Another predominant viewpoint that arose from our discussions was a desire for our philanthropy to provide people with access to the basics of health and education, so that they had the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. We wanted to give in such a manner that created opportunity rather than dependency on our dollars or on the organizations we granted to. This concept formed another key component of our strategy.
Last, when considering the question of the type of philanthropy we were not interested in, it was important to us that we not engage with organizations that took a top down approach. Rather, we wanted to work with organizations that saw the value in engaging the communities they were serving. At the core of this parameter is the notion that if we believe in the fundamental equality of the people we are attempting to serve, those people should have a voice in the crafting of programs that are intended to benefit them.
At the end of the day, creating a strategic focus for our family’s foundation was beneficial for our grantmaking, but also for gaining a deeper understanding of what philanthropy means to us. Tackling some key questions allowed us to come together as a family and assess what was important to us and where our values and interests overlapped. With that knowledge, we were able to create a strategic focus that allows us to be more impactful. There are countless nonprofit organizations doing commendable work all over the world, and unfortunately we cannot fund them all. Creating a strategic focus for our foundation has provided us with a structure with which to guide our grantmaking and more successfully provide opportunities to those we are attempting to serve.