The Balancing Act of Philanthropic Impact

By Tanis Klingler
|
06 / 28 / 24

No one philanthropist or foundation can do everything well, and no one philanthropist or foundation can solve all of the issues we face in this work. At some point, we will all likely fall short on something and will need to be ready for feedback from grantees and partners. 

A requirement of true partnership is listening, which takes time, focus, and energy — especially when you’re working on initiatives that serve lots of people. As a former high school teacher, I also know that time is a fleeting luxury. By the time the end-of-term results come in, students have moved into another classroom. Moving forward while prioritizing partnership with – and impact on – the real people we serve is one of the most important balancing acts we are responsible for as practitioners and philanthropists in social impact and nonprofit work. It is even more important if we are not a member of the community our work serves. As a teacher, this meant gathering student input and feedback, providing opportunities for student agency, and responding to data throughout the semester to make sure each week of lessons was better than the last, all while still moving ahead in the curriculum. 

One example gives me hope that there is a shift nearing in philanthropy. Over the last 5 years, MacKenzie Scott led her foundation — Yield Giving — to quickly distribute $16B+ in unrestricted funding to over 1,900 organizations “working to advance the opportunities of people in underserved communities” across various issue areas. In her words

“I have no doubt that tremendous value comes when people act quickly on the impulse to give. No drive has more positive ripple effects than the desire to be of service . . . My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”

Bold ideas, like giving away $16B of “no strings attached” gifts, make a huge impact for grantees and their sustainability. Bold ideas without waiting can also be followed by big critiques, especially within the field of philanthropy, which Scott has not avoided receiving or shielded herself from. Instead, she’s opted to reframe and listen to the wisdom within the feedback – pivoting her grantmaking to an open-call challenge, making incremental progress, adapting her approach without stalling the work, and enabling an incredible amount of resources to continue moving directly into the hands of folks driving social change.

At Building Impact Partners, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a side of philanthropy that is rooted in impact, partnership, and feedback. For four summers, I’ve supported our work with funders who want to close learning opportunity gaps and catalyze learning recovery during summer break to address the learning loss nearly all students experienced during COVID. We moved at an incredible pace over only a few months to get the first large summer program up and running to serve thousands of students.

To reach as many students as possible, we had to take action and learn quickly. We designed our programs to leverage out-of-school time in a way that was both enriching and academically rigorous. Throughout the program, we made sure to solidify and share what the program would and would not do, what our priorities were and why we were convicted by them, and remained open and flexible to feedback and ongoing learning. We recognized our responsibility as program designers and implementers, but also did not hold on tightly to the need to be “knowers.” We actively pursued critique and how to do better by working directly with teachers, students, family members, and site leaders through focus groups, capturing experiences through conversations and surveys to ensure we improve the program along the way. While academic data clearly demonstrates the program’s effectiveness, we also need the perspective and experience from the program’s participants and their families before, during, and after to guide our shared picture of what success means in this work. 

In a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article on love and accountability in the nonprofit sector, Ashleigh Gardere & Jeff Bradach of PolicyLink write:

“We must also invest in the partnerships required for us to deliver the work. . . . Whether through investments of material resources or time and collaboration, partnerships are a necessary and catalytic means to reach the future we are after.

It’s complex, messy, hard, and uncertain, AND we can move our way to a bold future together. Philanthropy must hold onto openness, humility, love, and accountability; without it, it is unlikely that we will meet the full intentions for our work. We maintain our forward momentum in alignment with our mission, and, if we hear that we’ve messed up or could do better, we make the time to listen and use that feedback to adjust course. When designing and implementing on a tight timeline, prioritizing partnership is key to deliver on philanthropy’s crucial role in systems change; it simply makes every gift worth even more. 

Share

More Insights & Resources

As a working mom with four kids under seven, I’ve learned to adjust the expectations I have for motherhood. My...
By Caitlin Hannon
|
03 / 25 / 24
In 2021, at the height of a global pandemic, 98 new billionaires joined the Forbes list in America alone. Collectively,...
By Alex Johnston
|
12 / 14 / 23
This holiday season my wife and I are celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary. Ever the philosopher, my 13-year-old son asked...
By Mike Wang
|
12 / 08 / 23
Over the last eleven years, we’ve had the privilege at Building Impact to partner with incredible donors and other changemakers...
By Building Impact
|
10 / 20 / 23
A few weeks ago I shared some data about the demographics and giving habits of the ultra wealthy on my...
By Alex Johnston
|
12 / 15 / 22
One of the biggest barriers to giving, and giving effectively, is the American taboo around talking about money and wealth....
By Alex Johnston
|
08 / 24 / 22
Recently, a well-respected philanthropist came to me on a mission to find more meaning in her giving. Many like her...
By Mike Wang
|
07 / 20 / 22
I started 2022 with an impossible goal—a goal that felt so unlikely, so totally implausible, that it was laughable in its...
By Caitlin Hannon
|
04 / 24 / 22
In my neighborhood in Philadelphia, the effort to improve a physically dangerous, unattractive thoroughfare has come to illustrate one of...
By Mike Wang
|
03 / 02 / 22
This month, I returned from maternity leave after having my third child in October. With my first two children, I...
By Caitlin Hannon
|
01 / 25 / 22
As 2021 draws to a close, one of the year’s bright spots for me was the AppleTV show, Ted Lasso. At...
By Mike Wang
|
12 / 07 / 21
Here’s what that means and why it can be incredibly fulfilling for you as a donor. One big reason funders...
By Alex Johnston
|
11 / 24 / 21
Before any reports came out detailing the extent of the academic impact of the pandemic on students, education leaders were...
By Caitlin Hannon
|
09 / 16 / 21
As school systems around the country manage the challenge of returning to in-person instruction amidst the surging Delta variant and...
By Mike Wang
|
09 / 01 / 21
Over the past few years, a variety of leaders in philanthropy have been calling for funders to embrace more risk in their...
By Alex Johnston
|
08 / 03 / 21
So you’ve decided you want your philanthropy to be more transformative. Or innovative. Or to better live up to your aspirations...
By Mike Wang
|
06 / 21 / 21
One of the biggest barriers to high impact philanthropy is the fact that the people with the most  financial resources are rarely...
By Alex Johnston
|
05 / 20 / 21
To white people, from another white person –  I’m white, and I grew up in a predominantly white and wealthy...
By Molly Barnes
|
04 / 30 / 21
In America, we tend to believe that enough money can fix any problem. Who hasn’t sat around thinking, “If I...
By Caitlin Hannon
|
04 / 09 / 21
“We just can’t work with them anymore. Their political views are repugnant, even if they were with us before…”  “…But...
By Mike Wang
|
03 / 05 / 21
Search