“The basic imperative of strategic philanthropy is to deploy your resources to achieve your goals most effectively,” say Paul Brest and Hal Harvey in their new book Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy (Bloomberg, 2008).

Giving families may feel both excited by and somewhat wary of the promise of the strategic philanthropy. Family philanthropy involves a personal and familial commitment to making a difference in the world. Strategic philanthropy focuses on impact, attractive to families looking to change their communities for the better, but how does one protect that family spirit from the strategic drive for impact?

Perhaps, it might be helpful to look at what strategic philanthropy is not. In this excerpt from their new book, Brest and Harvey note, “[Strategy] is never an end in itself, only a tool to aid an organization in achieving its mission.” Regardless of your goals, “strategy is not a substitute for good values and passion, but rather the vehicle for realizing them.”

Accomplishing philanthropic goals requires having great clarity about what those goals are and specifying indicators of success before beginning a philanthropic project. It requires designing and then implementing a plan commensurate with the resources committed to it. This, in turn, requires an empirical, evidence-based understanding of the external world in which the plan will operate. And it requires attending carefully to milestones to determine whether you are on the path to success, with a keen eye for signals that call for midcourse corrections. These factors are the necessary parts of what we regard as the essential core of strategic philanthropy—the concern with impact.

“Impact” is obviously not the same as good intentions. Nor is it the same as engaging in the activities called for by your strategic plan. Given the complexities of the world, even well-thought-out activities do not always achieve their goals. Impact is not even the same as seeing the outcome you intended come about—at least not if the outcome would have happened anyway. Simply put, impact is making a difference—not in some universal sense, but in terms of your own philanthropic goals…

Having seen some of the many forms that strategic philanthropy can take, you might wonder what it doesn’t include. The answer, unfortunately, is that it doesn’t include a considerable amount of philanthropy as it is actually practiced. If a strategy is a road map for achieving a goal, the goals of many philanthropic gifts and grants are not sufficiently specific to know if those goals have been achieved, let alone to draw the map to reach them.

We do not suggest that such philanthropy is harmful. In our personal lives, we regularly make year-end gifts to organizations for which we have warm feelings. These gifts make us feel good, and doubtless they help good organizations. But this isn’t the way to change the world, and it certainly is not a responsible way to give away someone else’s money…


Strategic Philanthropy

Strategic philanthropy consists of

  • clearly defined goals, commensurate with resources;
  • strategies for achieving the goals;
  • strategies that are based on sound evidence; and
  • feedback to keep the strategy on course.

Strategic philanthropy deploys resources to have maximum impact—to make the biggest possible difference. This approach is captured by the idea of social return on investment, where “return” refers to improving the world rather than financial gain.

All ambitious philanthropy is risky. A sound strategy makes success possible; its absence virtually ensures failure.


Philanthropy comes from the heart—from the love of humankind. It is love or passion that leads philanthropists to determine their missions and set ambitious goals. But once you have determined these goals, the process becomes outcome-centered. At this point, mind and muscle come in to design and implement a strategy to achieve those goals. A strategy comprises the unromantic, nitty-gritty working out of the means to accomplish your goals. It is never an end in itself, only a tool to aid an organization in achieving its mission.

Consider a few examples of how philanthropists converted passion into action:

  • John Dorr, a wealthy engineer, was convinced that the absence of a white line separating a highway shoulder from the road caused accidents. He persuaded Connecticut officials to do a field test on a portion of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, which proved his hypothesis. The Dorr Foundation continued to engage in advocacy, research, and the dissemination of information; as a result, such lines—often supplemented by textured shoulders—are now standard on highways throughout the United States.
  • David Levin’s and Michael Feinberg’s experiences as Teach for America volunteers in Houston public schools led them to create a charter school that provided disadvantaged children with long, disciplined, and structured school days. With funding from Don and Doris Fisher, the founders of the Gap, the amazing success of this venture has led to an increasing number of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academies throughout the country. (Teach for America itself grew out of the passion of Wendy Kopp, then a recent Princeton graduate, and the program has gained the support of both individual philanthropists and foundations.)
  • When his wife was treated heartlessly by hospital staff, Dr. Harvey Picker, a pioneer in X-ray technology, used the resources of his family foundation in collaboration with the Commonwealth Fund to support research and advocacy that established the concept of patient-centered care.

A sense of mission, commitment, and passion are essential to every aspect of the work of philanthropists and the not-for-profit organizations they support. But for every one of the preceding examples where passion was translated into impact, there probably are hundreds of cases where other philanthropists acted as if passion alone sufficed. In any event, strategy is not a substitute for good values and passion, but rather the vehicle for realizing them. Without the capacity to move beyond passion to effective planning and execution, the sector would be left largely with well-meaning efforts that confuse good intentions with real effects.

The preceding is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Money Well Spent: A Strategic Guide to Smart Philanthropy. Copyright © 2008 by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey. Published by Bloomberg Press. Available wherever books are sold.

Special thanks to Paul Harvey and to Yvette Romero at Bloomberg Press for sharing this with Family Giving News.