Four Questions to Get Maximum Impact During This Crisis

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Putnam Consulting Group and is re-posted here with permission.


You’re just the philanthropic leader we need.

If you are like most funders or philanthropy-serving organizations, in the past couple of months you’ve done one of two things:

You jumped into action, heroically extending or eliminating grant deadlines, providing additional funding without applications, eliminating funding restrictions, creating free webinars and live discussions, embracing new technology, and creating or joining local crisis response funds to coordinate resources.

Or, you’ve taken a “wait and see” approach. Maybe you feel fearful and overwhelmed, lack a strategy, adhere to internal policies that prevent quick decision-making, or simply don’t know what you should do. Some want to wait and see how things will shake out after the crisis is over. Some of you are waiting until there is new leadership in your organization so they can lead you through this crisis or seeing what other organizations are doing so you can replicate their efforts.

Either way, you continue to have the unique opportunity to apply much-needed talent and resources now.

In the United States and most countries, it’s safe to assume this immediate crisis will continue for at least a few more months (and possibly longer), and long-term recovery and reform will take years.

So whether you are continuing or jump starting your work, make the most of this time and maximize your impact by asking yourself these four questions:

1. What do we want to accomplish during this time?

Focus on what you want for your grantees, members or community before considering how you will accomplish it (Question #2). Your answers will vary depending on your mission, strategy, geography, and priorities. They might include making sure grantee organizations have the funding and resources they need to survive and thrive during this time; creating or supporting equitable policies that prioritize the people most negatively impacted by this crisis; or helping parents care for and educate their children, now that the early childhood programs you’ve been supporting are closed.

Tips for doing this well:

Gather information to inform this discussion. Make sure that what you want to accomplish aligns with what people actually need, not what you assume they need! This should take days, not weeks. Ask yourselves what you already know. Pick up the phone and ask grantees how they are doing and what you can do to help. If a crisis response fund has been created in your area, they might already be identifying local needs, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Turn to your national and regional philanthropy serving organizations located in the US and around the world to understand what they’ve learned so far. And your local community foundation is likely a terrific source of intel.

Convene your team (remotely of course!) and answer this question together. How you define “during this time” is up to you. It could be for the next month, quarter, or two years. I suggest sticking with whatever is easiest so that you can move quickly. You can always make course corrections later.

If you have an existing strategic plan, review and reference it. Ideally what you want to accomplish during this crisis can also help you advance your strategy. If you don’t have a strategy (or it’s collecting dust on a shelf), don’t worry. You can still answer this question.

2. How should we accomplish it?

Now that you’ve determined WHAT you want to accomplish, you can turn your attention to HOW you will do that. By asking “What?” before asking “How?” you prevent yourself from jumping to tactics before clarifying your objective.

Tips for doing this well:

First brainstorm, ALL the ways you might accomplish it. Together, come up with every possible approach, tactic, and crazy idea. You want your team to identify AS MANY WAYS AS POSSIBLE to accomplish it.

Next, pick the options you feel will be the best way to accomplish it. You can’t possibly identify the best way until you’ve already thought of every possible way, so don’t skip the step above!

Lastly, assign accountabilities. Identify actual people on your team who will be accountable for making these things happen and assign deadlines for reporting back on progress.

3. What investments can we make in ourselves to help us accomplish this?

You read that right. I didn’t say what investments can you make in your grantees or members. I’m talking about you. You the donor, foundation, corporate giving program, philanthropy-serving organization, family office or wealth advisor. What do YOU need in order to be able to quickly and effectively meet your objectives?

Tips for doing this well:

Identify weaknesses that are holding back your work. Think technology, internal policies, talent, knowledge, or expertise.

Shift your mindset from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. This means instead of creating restrictions, create opportunity. For example, you might open your resources to all nonprofits rather than existing grantees, or all funders rather than only members. You might recognize that your team brings valuable expertise and allow them to use their time to offer that expertise to grantees, rather than meet deadlines that were created before the crisis.

4. How will we know if we’ve accomplished this?

Just because we are amid a crisis doesn’t mean we need to throw out learning! At some point this crisis will be over. When that happens, you and your board will want to know if your interventions made a difference (and if not, what you could do differently in the future). Anticipate and prepare for that. It doesn’t need to be complicated. A 30-minute discussion can do the trick.

Tips for doing this well:

Ask what you want to track and learn from these efforts after the crisis.

Brainstorm all the options for learning this and then what will be easiest for your grantees and members? For example, once grantees are stabilized and leaders have some breathing room, you might simply call them and document your findings. Or rejoice in your ability to have human contact again. Invite them for lunch and honest conversation about what helped and what didn’t.

Ask if there is anything you need to put in place now. This might be as simple as letting your grantees know “when this is all over, we will reach out to you to learn what helped you, what was accomplished and how we can improve.”

By asking the right questions you can be the adaptive and responsive leader your community needs right now. The right questions spur learning, fuel innovation, create clarity, build trust, mitigate risk, and save money. In my book Delusional Altruism, I offer more guidance on what can throw philanthropy off and what makes it transformational including a dozen questions to help philanthropists maximize their impact. One of the biggest benefits? You save precious time and energy, even and especially when you feel beleaguered and pulled in too many directions while trying to formulate an effective response to an unexpectedly different set of circumstances than existed even a week ago.


The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

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