What Funders Say About Their Philanthropy, Then and Now

By Cynthia Schaal, Exponent Philanthropy

Philanthropy follows its own journey of learning and discovery for every donor, board member, and professional who gives. For our association members, who give as individuals or as part of small-staffed foundations, that journey can feel lonely and isolating at times.

Yet what we have come to know in our decades of working with foundations, families, and individual donors is this: The philanthropic journey has more shared experiences and ambitions than any individual may realize along their own path.

Case in point: a session at last fall’s National Conference welcoming 100+ conference newcomers.

We gave attendees three cards—one labeled PAST; one, PRESENT; one, FUTURE—and asked for a word or phrase that best described their philanthropy during that time. Participants shared with peers at their tables, and the following themes emerged:

The Past – Establishing a Path

Perhaps not surprisingly, many past philanthropic efforts were in upstart phases or finding their footing. Common phrases included “learning,” “transitioning,” and “exploring.” Cards reflected a focus on basic operations: money management, asset protection, planning, and workflow processes.

The past was the only category of cards that contained words with negative connotations, including “invisibility,” “reactive,” “limited,” and “not enough,” signaling that members have made significant progress toward more visible, impactful philanthropic practices.

The Present – Active and Engaged

Active learning was the overarching theme for the here and now. Most responses emphasized learning and evaluation, becoming more focused, collaborating and making connections, and transitioning leadership or generations. All these issues require significant investment of time and energy, suggesting that our members are fully engaged in the path that is unfolding in front of them.

The Future – Maximizing Impact

The future contained a variety of hopeful and positive themes. Many contributions cited impact through “bridge-building” and collaboration, “leadership,” and “expansion.” There were a few mentions of diversifying philanthropy through impact investing and capacity building. Other responses referenced adaptation, catalyzing change, and expanding awareness. One particularly aspirational response was “obsolete (we will have solved the problem we are funding).”

Taken together, these member responses reinforce our sense that there is much to be gained from connecting with others who have walked (or are walking) in your shoes. Our goal is to foster connections among funders that make the journey easier and even more fulfilling.

Connect with Exponent Philanthropy members who share your journey:

cynthia-schaalChief program officer Cynthia Schaal leads the development of programs and services that guide and connect member philanthropists and champion the impact of their work in the philanthropic community. She brings to the role extensive past experience in generating best practice insights and resources for nonprofit hospital and health system leaders.  

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