Focus and Reenergize with Four Powerful Questions

white question mark on an abstract background

Feeling uncomfortable? You’re not alone. We’re all being asked to stretch and grow these days as we navigate a new world. Along with COVID-19, we’re facing divisive political rhetoric, and the growing needs of a struggling civic society. Add to that the challenges of a recession and a deafening cry for action to condemn racism and increase social justice. While many family philanthropists navigate these challenges and opportunities, many more are also stepping in for the first time to contribute time, talent and resources. Rest assured that nobody has faced anything like this before. Feeling out of your element comes with the territory.

Whether you are new to philanthropy or seasoned, it’s challenging and overwhelming to internalize so much change. So, as you move forward, don’t forget about the power of curiosity and ask good questions to focus and recharge your efforts. Here are four critical questions to help you make the most of this moment.

1. Ask: “What do I know?”

Answer: You know a lot. To put a number on it, I believe the family foundations I advise already know 80% of the answer to any question they have about philanthropy. But they often forget to ask themselves this. They immediately turn to other experts to answer it for them. Then they waste time and money having other people tell them what they already know.

For example, let’s say you want to know this: “How can we use our philanthropic dollars to prevent drug abuse?” You’re not a drug abuse expert, but you might have learned a lot by funding a related issue like mental health. You might recognize that both issues are stigmatized, people who suffer from them are often too embarrassed to seek treatment, there aren’t enough treatment options, and health insurance companies do not sufficiently cover either type of problem. All this knowledge and insight can help you answer your question. You simply need to take the time—even a few hours—to reflect on what you already know and write it down.

2. Ask: What don’t I know?

Answer: While you know a lot, remember the other 20% you don’t know. Let me tell you about Marcie. A talented woman with decades of philanthropic experience, Marcie left her leadership role at a philanthropy organization to become the CEO of a community foundation. She wanted to increase the foundation’s assets through a planned giving campaign. With her experience, she already knew a lot about fund development, donor relations, campaign management, and communications.

When she asked herself what she didn’t know, she came up with a specific list of questions to research more in depth, putting herself in a much stronger position to capitalize on her strengths and find the additional support she needed in these specific areas. Even with years of experience, there will always be uncharted territory—and it is critical to continue to assess your knowledge gaps over time.

3. Ask: Who else needs to be involved?

Answer: The people you are trying to support. As a donor, it’s important to engage diverse perspectives. Break down damaging power dynamics that limit everyone’s potential and let the community guide your learning. As a funder, you may have researched intensively. You may have read every paper and study published on a particular topic. Maybe you’ve met with some of the leading minds on your issue. Heck, perhaps you’ve even funded studies yourself. But when it comes to social issues, the people who are most affected are your most valuable sounding board and your greatest source of insight. Never forget that you don’t know what you don’t know—but the people you want to help most certainly do. And with a little trust-building on your part, they’ll probably be happy to enlighten you. People with lived experience know what their communities need.

The second reason you need to ask, “Who else needs to be involved?” is because the challenges we face don’t exist in a vacuum. Our problems exist in an interconnected universe of systems, governments, organizations, financing, environments, and stakeholders. Our solutions—and our philanthropy—need to be interconnected as well. You need to involve these systems, organizations, and stakeholders to fully understand the problem and determine and implement the best solution.

4. Ask: What are our *new* best practices?

Answer: During the past six months, we’ve seen many examples of philanthropists rising to the occasion. They’ve joined together to create emergency funds, extended and removed restrictions on grants, streamlined decision making, and made adaptation and innovation the norm rather than the exception. But still, many think of these as stop-gap measures instead of a new normal. So, the task to do now is to ask yourself what new behaviors and practices represent growth into a new and more effective you? Once you identify these, do everything possible to make them the gold standard for how you operate.

Here are some questions to help in your self-assessment:

  1. What did we do differently during this crisis? What was the result?
  2. What did we put in place before the crisis that helped us during it?
  3. What do we wish we had done before the crisis?
  4. If we could do it all over again, what would we do differently?
  5. What new practices do we want to maintain?
  6. How can they be applied elsewhere?

It’s easy to fall into patterns and to be reactive, especially in times of stress and change. But by taking the time to be curious, asking the right questions, and then carefully listening to the answers, we gain clarity about our strengths and weaknesses.

By building on our existing foundations, we create new opportunities and open ourselves to new pathways. Instead of feeling uncomfortable and overwhelmed, we gain the support and confidence we need to effectively collaborate, grow into a new reality and rise to the challenges at hand.

Learn more from Kris Putnam-Walkerly in her new book, Delusional Altruism

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.