By Gerald P. McCarthy, formerly of Virginia Environmental Endowment
Gerald (Jerry) McCarthy recently retired after serving for 36 years as executive director of Virginia Environmental Endowment, a private grantmaking institution whose work focuses on environmental conservation. Jerry participated in Exponent Philanthropy’s Impact Working Group since its creation in 2011, and we asked for his reflections on ways to give big while staying small, working with few or no staff to achieve outsized impact.
Having participated in the Exponent Philanthropy Impact Working Group for several years, I can attest to the value of thinking about and talking about and prioritizing your philanthropic impact. Once you are clear about where and how you want to make a difference—and no, you cannot skip this step—you will be amazed at the opportunities you suddenly see right in front of you.
First, there is more than one way to achieve impact. In simplest terms, impact means making a real difference with the limited funds you have available for the causes you believe in most strongly.
One traditional way to do this, especially at the local level, is to determine which organizations are doing the most good for your community’s quality of life. Find out who they are and support them generously and often. If yours is a general purpose fund, this approach makes a lot of sense. You still have to undertake the due diligence to determine which groups are “the best” at what they do, but, once done, you can invest in them and thereby make a difference in your community.
Another way, for those who are focused on particular fields of interest, involves leveraging your grant funds and your ideas in ways that allow your limited funds to work harder and go further, multiplying the impact they can have.
This, like the three rules of real estate (location, location, location), requires focus, focus, focus, plus research into what is happening (or not) in your fields of interest. You’ll need to read, study, and talk with experts to ask—and begin to answer—these questions: What needs doing here? What do we want our limited dollars to accomplish?
Second, impact does not require large grants. One of our best and most productive projects began with a grant of $1,375. Twenty years later, the project is a million-dollar-a-year success story whose work with its many private, public, and nonprofit partners is restoring the Elizabeth River to levels of cleanliness it hasn’t experienced in decades. Small grants too can make a big difference.
If increasing your impact is a subject that interests you, you should get your hands on Exponent Philanthropy’s “Getting to Impact” resources. If you are not sure whether to take the time, I hope this post will stimulate you to act to increase the impact of your giving.
Exponent Philanthropy’s issue of Essentials on impact (for ASF members—join today!)
San Francisco Bay Area Local Engagement Group: The Path to Impact November 20 | Nob Hill Masonic Center
Gerald P. McCarthy started as executive director of Virginia Environmental Endowment in 1977 when VEE was established as the result of an unprecedented decision by the federal court in the U.S. v. Allied Chemical water pollution case. The Endowment is a grantmaking foundation whose purpose is to improve the quality of the environment by encouraging the private, nonprofit, and public sectors to work together to prevent pollution, conserve natural resources, and promote environmental literacy.