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The Four Foundations of Meaningful Giving

Jul 17, 2023

How to Create Meaning with Your Money: The Four Foundations of Impact and Joy for Donors

So here it is—the most important thing I’ve learned from a decade of working with donors.

There are four key things you need to focus on to gear up your giving in a way that creates impact, joy, and meaning for you and the world at large. Philanthropy at its best is about getting visionary, getting real, getting together, and getting better.

Now, let’s walk through each of these four foundations for meaningful giving in turn.

Getting Visionary: Commit to Prioritizing Visionary Social Impact Above Ego-Driven Needs

Getting visionary is about creating a vision that is big enough to actually make a difference on the issues that matter, whatever level of resources you are bringing to bear. Great visions are engines, not anchors. You want a vision that pulls you forward, not one that holds you back. This is especially true in philanthropy where it is so easy for donors to dwell on the vision at the expense of actually making progress.

Is the vision for your giving sufficiently vivid and grounded in reality to inspire you and others to take action and go after it? A great metaphor for this is a distant mountain range. Imagine looking at its many different peaks. Standing right here, from miles away, do you already know exactly which peak you want to summit? Do you know the precise route you’ll take and why it’s going to be so great to get to the top? Or does the whole mountain range seem shrouded in fog to the point where you’re not even sure there’s anything there? The point here is that your philanthropic vision can suffer from being both too rigidly detailed and too murky and vague.

Getting visionary the right way takes an integrated balance:

  • Make space for other people in your vision—indeed, create your vision with other people, especially those closest to the problem.
  • Think big enough to actually solve the problem, even if that means acknowledging that your resources are insufficient on their own.
  • Think granular too: figure out what it will take to actually carry out your vision in the real world.
  • Identify and account for your own blind spots, cognitive biases, and psychological wiring.
  • Embrace complexity and the dimension of time. Look for the unexpected and the interconnected, and appreciate how things may play out over time.
  • Be adaptive in your vision—it has to be big, flexible, and inclusive.

This is the kind of blend that makes a vision both inspirational and enduring. This is what it takes to face all the twists and turns that inevitably arise on the journey toward addressing the biggest challenges imperiling our world today.

Getting Real: Seek and Speak the Truth to Everyone, Including Yourself

This is where the rubber hits the road. Can you hold onto that compelling vision while you also confront the messy, disappointing, and even depressing reality of the world? So much philanthropy falls apart when it comes up against the rigors of the real world. Developing an exciting and inspiring vision is often the fun part for donors seeking to translate their money into meaning—even with all the provisos attached to getting your vision right. Facing the harsh reality of the world as it actually is—that’s another matter. For many high-capacity donors, dealing with reality is brushed aside as an optional exercise. It’s all too easy to surround yourself with a team that will tell you the world is flat if that’s what your vision statement and theory of change stipulates. Getting real takes courage, humility, and proximity to the people and places that are most closely involved with the issues you are trying to address.

Getting Together: Treat Others with Consideration, Not Contempt

This is all about working with other people in a connected and effective way. Unfortunately, this is an area where plenty of philanthropy falls drastically short.

A key commitment for meaningful giving is to treat others with consideration, not contempt. “Contempt” is a strong word, but when we engage others as instruments for meeting our own needs and not as agents whose autonomy we respect, we are treating them with a form of contempt. There’s a lot more to say about how we can show up in a different way in our relationships with others, and there is more about  those frameworks and tools in this series of posts. For now, it’s important to understand that being genuinely open to the influence of others is a foundation for experiencing both more joy and more impact in your giving. Far too often, philanthropists go out in the world looking to enlist others in service of their own vision. It is more effective to begin with deep listening and an openness to supporting the ideas of others.

MacKenzie Scott’s approach to philanthropy demonstrates her understanding of the value behind getting together in a considerate, collaborative way. First, she identified several key areas that she wanted to make a difference in. Then, she and her team of advisors looked for leaders and organizations who were already out there doing great work or who were still in startup mode but putting together compelling plans. After a very streamlined diligence process, she backed up a metaphorical truck and dumped out the money—no strings attached, no program metrics, milestones, or detailed reporting requirements. This is a radical approach in the world of philanthropy: for her, not requiring an ongoing relationship with her grantees represents her way of respecting their ideas and their agency. That said, this is certainly not the only way to create meaning with your money—more on that here and here.  

Getting Better: Commit to the Daily Pursuit of Personal Development, Learning, and Growth

Now we get to the part where all this talk about “making the world a better place” comes full circle: back to making yourself into a better you. When coaching philanthropists as well as the social entrepreneurs in our accelerator programs, I often say the journey of joyful impact is about making yourself into a more effective instrument of impact and a more expansive vessel of joy. This set of posts covers this journey of personal growth around the Seven Pillars of Personal Development. The truth is, you can’t get visionary, get real, and get together in the way we’re talking about without also making the commitment to get better through the daily pursuit of personal growth and joy across all areas of your life.


Check out Money with Meaning for lots more!

There are many more tools and frameworks to help donors, philanthropy advisors and social entrepreneurs and fundraising professionals on the journey to more meaningful giving in my book Money with Meaning: How to Create Joy and Impact through Philanthropy.   You can find the book on Amazon here, and whether or not you have the book, you can access a free, chapter by chapter digital playbook with over 50 videos and worksheets here.  

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