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  • Writer's pictureThe Lapin Group

Intentional Philanthropy

The following post originally appeared on on January 12, 2023

By: Avrum Lapin - January 12, 2023

In our world, we see and hear many different strategies and approaches to giving and philanthropy — remember effective altruism — yet the philanthropic marketplace is not homogeneous, nor is it two-dimensional. It is an open and diverse marketplace, a hyper-competitive environment with many voices, efforts and selling propositions vying for attention and resources. It is organized, well-populated and led by people who are driven by particular values and interests. Philanthropic leaders, especially the emerging Gen X (45-60) cohort, which is not only motivated by the desire to improve the lives of their families, their communities and/or their country — and often the well-being of an at-risk group or nation across the globe — but is less brand-loyal in doing it. It isn’t simple.

And the act of philanthropy is not limited only to a financial contribution, but like the environment, is multifaceted and often complex. In reviewing the incisive document titled “How We Give Today,” reporting the initial research of the Generosity Commission — created by my colleagues at the Giving Institute and Giving USA, and published by the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University — we learned the following:

“In a country where giving is normatively associated with donating to charity, fewer than 20% of participant responses about how they take action to make the world a better place mentioned giving money. Participants seldom mentioned tax codes in reference to their giving, but instead discussed giving locally, civic engagement, and myriad informal giving acts, including sharing kindness and connecting others — and they spoke of these acts often and with excitement.”

So, as we transition into 2023 and further into an increasingly unformed and evolving future, we must remember the core elements of what has worked in the past – because past is always prologue. At the same time, we must carefully read and understand the trends and developments to forge strategies and effective initiatives that achieve results today and going forward for families, people, communities, societies and countries, and not just to attract accolades and recognition. I call that Intentional Philanthropy.

Giving is a passionate act, don’t get me wrong, but you need clarity to get there. Thus, Intentional Philanthropy is predicated on gathering and analyzing data to fully understand the scope and prioritization of unmet needs; it must be relevant and speak to meeting those unmet needs of real people and communities; and all of this must be understood and made sufficiently compelling to assemble and mobilize leadership and identify access to the financial resources to meet them, making it possible to succeed.

I firmly believe that COVID-19, while deadly and disruptive, did not change the trajectory of philanthropy. What it did was temporarily realign the directed support of many donors across the spectrum of capacity, and accelerated the changes that were already in motion – the contexts of giving; ways in which we communicate; and the depth of due diligence by donors at all levels.

And as our society and the marketplace continue to emerge from COVID, and contend with an evolving philanthropic environment impacted by inflation and continued volatility in financial markets, we must be careful to exercise Intentional Philanthropy and include these steps in our thinking, design, planning and implementation:

1. Craft and articulate a vision that accurately reflects your goals and is clear and understood in the philanthropic arena

If you don’t have a vision, you don’t know where you are going, and neither do those who might support you. Understand that nobody will give you something for what you have already done. Yes, they will give you something for the incremental (however substantial) good work you do every day. But where people, across the spectrum of capacity, will dig deep and follow your lead will be to achieve a compelling and meaningful result that will demonstrably make a difference in the lives of people and communities going forward. It is more than your important purpose and mission – it is the ability to see from here to there, to understand and articulate the future, what it will mean and why supporting it is essential.

You have to do more than just say your vision, out loud to make it so. Creating something in an echo chamber is often bound to hit brick walls in people who do not feel vested, or part of creating, cultivating and speaking the vision. You must communicate it to others, open up your thinking and intention, know your audience and establish your leadership based on ideas, and who– you and the colleagues who crafted the vision believe that you can reach with it, and what success will ultimately look like.

2. Prioritize and set goals – identify and build the intersection of the needs and the interests of the donors who might support meeting them

There are two basic factors that determine why people give. One is the person doing the ask: people are always able to convince their friends, families and associates to support previously unknown or unsupported causes. The ask also gives leaders the space to engage and establish connection with friends, colleagues and even those whom they are meeting for the first time. The second reason why people give is because they see the need and how their giving will enable something important to happen.

That is achieved through careful planning and clear articulation of goals – “if we raise these funds we will be able to expand programming to bring value in these specific ways and to many more children, adults, and families,” or “reaching our goal of $50 million will enable us to complete the building project so that we can bring our value and purpose to X more people every month and every year.” And we must always be direct with ourselves and our supporters that a capital or building campaign is never about a snazzy reconstruction or renovation because a building or facility is but a vessel for the value that occurs within.

So, priorities, goals and a strategic organizational direction need to be set, consistent with what we do and the vision that we have set forth. And those goals must be clear, available to all, and carefully vetted and tested, ensuring that we stay focused on and prepared to meet the needs of the consumer, not just to satisfy the personal priority of the donor and their impulse to do good.

Our core selling proposition, or case for giving, is the first tool that integrates vision, goals and priorities. It clearly articulates the imperative to meet those goals, and is carefully balanced to achieve the passionate engagement of the donor to the cause and its vision, and to secure their confidence through the clarity of the goals that their financial investment is worthwhile and needs to be made.

3. Do your research – gather empirical and anecdotal data to help you understand the scope of need and the capability of the marketplace to meet them; know what motivates donors today and the impact of generational transition

Why is this investment required, and why is it important to be made now? What need is it seeking to meet? Why do we believe that we can do what we are trying to achieve, and what is the path to successful completion? Who is interested in your vision and purpose, and who will share your innate connection and support it financially? What about it is compelling? Why will achieving your organizational priorities motivate a donor to help you make this happen instead of making something else happen someplace else?

To answer these questions, in addition to knowing your project inside and out, you also need to know your donors and prospective donors well. Who are they? What are they potentially capable of doing to help financially and in other important ways? Why would they care about this nonprofit or its project? Have they supported your nonprofit before in any capacity? Have they ever supported something similar in another venue? If so, what were the factors that made that happen?

“If you build it they will come” works only in the movies. Do your research, talk to people and do not ever walk into a conversation unprepared. Individuals you approach at every stage will assume that you have done your research, that you know who they are from publicly sourced information.

Philanthropic and thought leaders are used to being asked for input, but often push back when it is perceived as an opaque attempt to reach into their pockets. We need to approach these meetings knowing that individuals and families of influence in the philanthropic marketplace are also driven by their personal passions and priorities. This can help you in advancing a conversation that creates opportunity built upon an understanding and perspective on the charitable arena.

4. Make a business case

We have been hearing for several years from lead and major donors about a clear, transparent and accountable business case to accompany the passionate case for giving. In this volatile (hopefully) post-COVID environment, the due diligence performed by prospective lead and major donors is even far more determined than in the past.

Donors’ questions often include:

  • If I make this transformative commitment, how will my gift be processed and banked; and will they be banked separately from operating funds?

  • The funding that you are seeking to raise is far more substantial than your annual operating budget. Hence, are you capable of digesting these funds and making sure that they are carefully managed and available when they are needed?

  • Who will be monitoring the funds over the period of the campaign or the project?

Don’t wait until asked. When you initiate a project or a campaign, prepare a multi-year budget projection, beginning in the current year, that sets forth all of the nonprofit’s operating assumptions and future vision and goals based on the planning, research and the value and selling propositions. This detailed document integrates the additional revenues of the project or campaign clearly demonstrating the anticipated revenues; indicates the management and pathway of the funds, projected balances and outlays for each year and for what; and sets forth the nonprofit’s anticipated financial position at the end of the project.

5. Keep your focus on people and results, creating impact

Intentional Philanthropy, like all philanthropy, is focused on achieving goals, making a difference and improving the lives of people. Even putting COVID aside, the philanthropic marketplace is complicated: it is marked by transition and change: generational shifts, changing values and priorities and the concentration of wealth and the expanding economic gaps in our larger society..

Bottom line…you do not need, and cannot possibly have, all of the answers all at once. That said, we must be committed and prepared to seek the answers and build the insight, data, knowledge and planning required to make things happen.

We talk a lot about impact. Impact is not achieved just by raising funds and patting ourselves on the back, but by knowing why we are doing it, why it is important now and ultimately putting those funds to work.

Let’s be intentional. Looking forward to thoughts and questions.

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