of India's most revered spiritual
texts, the Mahabharata, asserts that a gift of any size
given to "the right person at the right time, with
a pure spirit, will yield endless fruits hereafter."
This timeless counsel on
effective giving offers intriguing advice for those of
us who want to make our giving more effective; but who
is the right person (or organization) and what is the
right time to give? And how do we maintain a pure spirit
The task, it seems, is
not so easy. The question is: Can it get any easier? And
if so, how?
Some years ago, I wrote
a doctoral dissertation on translation. I had students,
professional translators, and people who had grown up
bilingually think aloud about their process as they produced
a written translation. One finding surprised me: When
given as much time as they needed, it was the bilinguals
and translators-those with the most knowledge of both
languages - not the students, who took the most time and
had the most "trouble" translating the text,
even though they produced better translations. In an important
way, the task was harder for them, because they knew too
much. Even when they chose the same word the students
had selected, they considered many more options, struggling
with the inadequacy of the language to express subtle
nuances, before "settling" for the word they
considered the lesser of many evils. The students, in
contrast, simply picked the first word they found in the
Whenever I presented these
findings to translators or advanced language students,
I was met with sighs of relief and gratitude. "No
wonder I still have trouble!" was the feeling expressed
repeatedly. "There's nothing wrong with me, after
all, just because I still find this challenging."
As I have delved into the
topic of effective giving, the memory of the bilingual
translators has come to me often. In so many things in
life, we expect that as we learn more and become more
experienced, it will all get easier. The lesson of the
bilingual translators is that it's simply not so. As we
become more proficient, we take in more information and
process our decisions at much higher levels of complexity.
And so it is with philanthropy.
When interviewing people for this issue, I was struck
by the levels of complexity inherent in the giving process-and
the subtle ways that different individuals have of handling
them. The dynamic tensions among choices are many: How
strategic should I be? Do I create specific goals and
strategies to achieve them-or do I give from my heart,
trusting what's good and capable in the organizations
and people I donate to, and my own impulse to be generous?
To determine outcomes, are my informal observations enough
or do I need more formal measures-and how do I decide
what those should be? Is it more effective to give to
many projects or to concentrate my resources on a few?
What benefits are there to giving to individuals vs. organizations?
Do I want to support what is already good in the world
or fund groups working on change? How do I know what's
effective and how does my own satisfaction fit into that
equation? Do I give primarily to transform myself or to
benefit others? Is bigger better in philanthropy or is
small the way to go? How does my own attitude when giving
influence my effectiveness?
The questions seem endless,
and their answers not easy to come by. But there is a
way to find clarity. As I have spoken with people about
giving, I have noticed an important key: the references
they make to the learning process. How often people say
or imply that the only way to learn philanthropy is to
do it. How often people talk of failure as a natural and
inevitable part of learning. How reflective some people
are about their own growth as a giver.
Donald Schön, in his book
The Reflective Practitioner
, maintains that in
any field of endeavor, exceptional competence is achieved through
reflection- in-action. Highly functioning individuals
reflect on their actions before, during, and after they
occur. They continually adjust course and self-correct,
based on what they've learned from observing their own
actions and their results. This was certainly true with
the bilingual translators. The more reflective they were
about their own choices and process while they translated,
the better their translations were.
If this is so in all fields,
wouldn't it also be true in philanthropy?
(anonymous author), a Jungian
analyst and philanthropist, describes her own process
of growth as a funder in similar terms: "For me,
growing and changing as a funder is trying to stay on
my own creative edge, where something is coming into being,
into form; then, according to what is emerging, changing
my guidelines about where I want to put money. I get ideas,
put them into practice and see how they work, then modify
them. I try to stay aware that I have a core set of assumptions
and make them as conscious as I can to myself."
At the organizational level,
the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), a private
foundation that invests in businesses that provide social
benefit, has built self-reflection into its venture philanthropy
model in a radical way. From the outset, funder George
Roberts has required rigorous selfreflection from the
organization. So that REDF staff would have time to work
and reflect, they did not initially give public relations
interviews to the press. Only after years of reflection
and learning from their failures have they begun to talk
publicly about their many successes.
To become more effective
philanthropists, we too can build deep selfreflection
into our lives. The following are useful guidelines.
time for growth and learning
most important element in effective giving is allowing
time for it- time to reflect, to learn, and to grow. Emmett
Carson, CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation, observes that
giving effectively "is not something that we are
born knowing. We learn as we give. It's a lifelong experience."
Yet so many of us don't allow ourselves the time needed
for learning. Anne Slepian, co-founder of More than Money,
says, "Many of us decide what to give to by sorting
through appeal letters at the end of the year. But to
truly give effectively requires more care and attention."
As you give yourself time to become more effective, you'll
likely find an added bonus: your giving will become more
rewarding and fulfilling to you, too.
your values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions
whom, how, and where you give depends fundamentally on
your core values, beliefs, and basic assumptions. For
instance, your assumptions about how change happens will
play a significant role in whether you give to political
or spiritual causes, to individuals or organizations,
and to many or few recipients. You can observe and reflect
on your own actions to discern your actual (vs. espoused)
values and beliefs; conversely, you can carefully examine
your beliefs and values in order to guide your actions.
opportunities for learning
model suggests that learning "on the job" with
a mentor who can help you reflect on your actions is a
powerful way to become a more reflective practitioner.
Salvatore LaSpada, director of the Philanthropy Workshop
at the Rockefeller Foundation, also recommends finding
ways to learn formally about philanthropy. Such experiences
can expose you to new viewpoints and give you tools to
aid your reflection. You might, for example, take a course
in philanthropy, read about the history of social change,
or attend conferences of grantmakers who fund in your
interest areas. (For a list of funders' affinity groups,
contact the Council on Foundations, 202-466- 6512, www.cof.org.)
You can also learn about your areas of interest from people
who are not philanthropists, to gain a more inclusive
perspective. Books, conferences, and websites abound for
any funding area.
what you love, so you'll enjoy the reflection
growth and effective giving require time, fund what genuinely
interests you. That way, you'll be able to maintain the
long-term involvement needed for learning, and you'll
enjoy the process, too. Woods offers this advice: "Find
an area you love, that you really care about, and that
you're willing to invest in learning a lot about. The
more you learn, the better funder you'll be." Slepian
also notes that most of us have limited exposure across
race and class and suggests that exposing yourself to
new people, projects, and ideas will allow you to find
new people and projects to love.
failure as a natural way of learning
time for reflection makes it possible to learn from failure.
Failure can then become information that lets you adjust
course. Melinda Tuan, managing director of the Roberts
Enterprise Development Fund, says that effective philanthropy
"takes a long time, a lot of patience, and you have
to be very comfortable with risk. Some projects will fail
rather spectacularly. Being able to take blame along with
success is the mark of a really good philanthropist."
mechanisms for getting feedback
reflect on effectiveness, you need information about what
happened as a result of your gift. It may be as simple
as talking to the recipient or observing results in the
community; or it might involve asking an organization
what formal measures of effectiveness they can show you.
The key is finding mechanisms that let you see more clearly
what resulted from your financial support and then taking
the time to reflect on what you have seen.
part of a giving community
Gary, founder of several networks for women philanthropists,
names isolation as one of the most common barriers to
giving effectively. Joining a giving circle, reading publications
written by practicing philanthropists, participating in
the More than Money listserv, or starting your own discussion
group are all ways to increase your effectiveness and
your joy in giving, by reflecting with others while you
As I have talked with others
and reflected on my own giving, I've found it reassuring
to realize that we don't need to give in one particular
way to be effective. Effective giving is multi-faceted,
not limited to one approach. Whether we give to immediately
benefit an individual or to create long-term systemic
change; whether our focus is politics or spirituality;
whether our giving is large or small; whether it mainly
benefits ourselves or others, we can give effectively-and,
chances are, we can learn to give more effectively still.
The key is to hone our
own niche, based on our own values, skills, and intentions,
and to engage in the kind of continual self-reflection
that lets us adjust course as we go along. As Wayne Muller,
founder of Bread for the Journey, says, "Every organism
has its place in the ecology." (See his interview,
pp. 24-27.) To find our own right place in the giving
ecology, we can give ourselves the gifts of time, experience,
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