Demystifying the Hidden Figure of ‘Effectiveness’

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In philanthropy, effectiveness is our north star—it is the bar we measure ourselves against and the standard we strive to uphold. But what exactly does it mean to “successfully achieve an intended result” or “fulfill a specified function,” particularly when our structures, practices, and beliefs are called into question? What does it mean to be effective not just as funders, but as family philanthropies? As we fixate on outcomes and results, is the meaning of effectiveness eluding us?

For me, even with all my intentions and inquiry, the answer has been yes. As I had shared during NCFP’s Racial Justice in Family Philanthropy Symposium, I was 10+ years into advising families on effective practices when I realized that I had not fully connected the concept of effectiveness with equity. For years, my overarching idea of effectiveness was lacking equity as a critical component, and in retrospect it’s shocking. Now I continue to interrogate my perspective and understanding of effective philanthropy. Which raises the inevitable question:

What else are we missing? 

Effectiveness eludes us because we have no common understanding, no shared lexicon to describe what it means for our field. And while we recognize that there is not one, single right way to practice family philanthropy, we do know that there are harmful behaviors, mindsets, and structures that we often perpetuate as donors—and they continuously fail to serve our goals for change and progress. At NCFP, we have a unique vantage point of this issue because we’ve worked with hundreds of philanthropic families. What we’re hearing time and again is a resounding recognition that there is much more to be done and ways to make the work we’re already doing more impactful, but how to do that remains unclear.

Families come to us for support, guidance, and resources. It is clear that the fundamental work we must do to equip families with the tools they need is to demystify the tenets of effective family philanthropy. But it’s not up to us to define—it’s up to us to facilitate the process so we can create a blueprint for families to tailor and make their own. That’s why we’re working with Open Impact to gather insights from the family philanthropy community, and collectively explore and embrace what effectiveness means within the construct of families and the implementing partners involved in family philanthropy.

For our field, effectiveness must go beyond grantmaking and developing healthy funding practices with grantees and the greater communities we serve, it must touch on intra-family dynamics and include family philanthropy staff, and it must speak to the varied stages within the Family Giving Lifecycle—from purpose to succession and legacy. Our early work  is already beginning to bear valuable lessons. Initial interviews and research have affirmed that effective family philanthropy happens at the intersection of individual transformation, family connection, and community impact. 

“Individuals need to do the work to be able to work with their families. Families need to do the work to be able to work together. And family philanthropies need to do the work to examine how they are going to use their wealth and privilege to address the challenges facing our communities and world.”  – Research participant

Over the next several months, we’ll continue to speak with members of our community to develop the common understanding and shared language our field needs to demystify effectiveness. We encourage you to join us in this process as we look forward to unpacking the findings of this work at this year’s National Forum on Family Philanthropy. We invite you to answer the following questions to inform our exploratory process (please send your responses via email to

  • Why is effective family philanthropy important? What outcomes result when we are being effective as family philanthropies? 
  • How do those outcomes manifest for both families and societal impact? 
  • What are the tenets that undergird effective family philanthropy?

More than ever, giving now matters and how we give matters. Together, we’ll define effective family philanthropy so we can discuss how to put that definition to work when we gather this fall.