Who is Involved in Your Giving: Do You Need to Bring on Paid Staff?

Uncategorized Apr 20, 2022

Do You Need to Bring on Staff and Advisors?

If making decisions jointly with family members and other close associates is one potential barrier to gearing up giving, another is getting the kind of outside help that truly makes sense for you and the issues you care about. Adding advisors or other staff to your philanthropic decision-making is a big step. While it may solve and streamline some processes, this also introduces principal-agent dynamics that ultimately make your giving process more complex. So, let’s be sure that adding staff or advisors makes sense for you before you go down this road. 


6 Options for DIY Giving

Below are a series of options for how you could proceed with little to no help from paid staff or advisors.  As you go through this list, take note of how you react to each. Are any of these off the table for sure—if so, why? Do any of these options seem like appealing paths forward? Could some combination of these approaches be a good fit?


  1. Go Simple & Straightforward: Pick a simple issue with a clear, causal chain and only one or a very few potential grantees to choose from. For example, it’s easy to support the local soup kitchen and have confidence that your money is doing real good for real people, even if it’s not necessarily addressing the root causes of food insecurity in the community. 
  2. Go Blue Chip: Pick one or more name brand organizations that have a reputation for leading the field on the issues you care most about, and back them in a substantial way. Take for example Nike founder Phil Knight’s 2016 donation of $400 million to his alma mater, Stanford University.
  3. Go Boutique: Commit whatever time it takes upfront to diligently seek out a handful of organizations whose leadership you can get to know and trust and whose strategy you believe in. Then, back them for the long haul. A great example of this approach comes from Don and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap. They went looking for innovative public education ideas to support back in the mid 1990s. They eventually identified two fledgling organizations: the KIPP network of charter schools and Teach for America. The Fishers went on to support these organizations with decades of donations totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. 
  4. Go Passive: Pick a mutual fund rather than individual stocks. This is what you are doing when you entrust your philanthropic resources to the United Way or a more specialized, pooled fund such as Blue Meridian. You are allowing others to allocate funding on your behalf--and ideally they have both passion and  proximity when it comes to the issues you care most about. One of the best known examples of this approach is Warren Buffet’s decision to vest almost all of his philanthropic resources with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. After doing this, he held a seat on the foundation’s board for a time. Recently, he has stepped back from even that level of involvement, content to let others make the grantmaking decisions.
  5. Go With Your Gut:  This is about following your interests and your instincts when it comes to your giving.  Letting the chips fall where they may; shooting from the hip; seeing what sticks; pick your metaphor, but they all amount to going with your gut. If you already have the well honed instincts based on your proximity to and passion for the issues you care about, gearing up your giving doesn’t actually have to take that much time. An extreme example of this might be Frances and Patrick Connolly,  the couple from Northern Ireland who gave away more than half their £114 million in lottery winnings within a year. They did this by simply writing down a list of people and organizations they wanted to support. As one of them said, “We didn't set out to give half away, that's just what happened. We sat down and looked at the list and kind of figured out what we thought would make a difference in people's lives”
  6. Go Pro: Commit a substantial amount of your time and essentially become your own professional advisor/staff. Develop trusted relationships with key leaders on the front lines of the issue(s) you’re focused on, and build your strategy in tandem with them. Do your own diligence on prospective grantees, and get close enough to the work to track impact and make course corrections as your giving unfolds. Some of the largest scale practitioners of this approach prefer to operate below the radar.  In our practice at Building Impact, we have come across  several donors who are quietly giving away tens of millions of dollars every year with no staff whatsoever.

So, what do you think? Is it viable for you to proceed without bringing on your own staff or advisors as you gear up your giving? Again, there are no wrong answers. The key to figuring out the best strategy for maximizing your impact and your joy starts with being honest with yourself. 


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