Developing Expertise: Learning More About The Causes You Support

Taking the time to dig deeper and learn about your favorite causes can help you make more effective gifts.

Many people limit their charitable gifts to a few causes they know personally: where they went to college or a museum where a friend serves on the board. But sometimes a nonprofit organization applies cold for a grant at a foundation and gets lucky.

That was the case with William Beckenbach, the director of a neighborhood development corporation who ran his family foundation in Cleveland for many years. “Our philanthropy was reactive instead of proactive,” he says. “Someone came to me asking for money and I would ask my wife what she thought and then write a check.”

A series of changes led Beckenbach to convert his foundation into a donor advised fund at The Cleveland Foundation three years ago. Since then, he has adopted a whole new outlook on philanthropy, freed up from the hassle of managing the foundation’s finances and able to take advantage of new resources. “I began asking myself are there other causes out there that need my help?” Beckenbach explains.

He and his family, whose fund focuses on education, are learning systematically about the field in order to make better choices about their grant recommendations. A large part of that learning has taken place at panels sponsored by The Cleveland Foundation.

Donors like Beckenbach say that developing expertise is a satisfying and not altogether time consuming process. Ultimately it results in more effective giving. The point is to decide first how to focus on one or two funding areas and become experts in them. Donors then ask themselves and the philanthropy professionals who advise them not just whether one charity is trustworthy, but which approaches to a particular problem have the greatest chance of success. Then, they find a nonprofit that is applying that approach, do the due diligence, find out what the organization needs and decide on a grant.

Getting Help
Philanthropists with donor advised funds or supporting organizations at community foundations can turn to the foundation’s staff for help. Fund officers will be able to offer an overview of a particular funding area and current strategies—if one’s goal is to help the homeless, for example, is it wiser to support shelters or supportive housing complexes? Community foundations as well as regional associations of grantmakers also offer regular workshops, or issues roundtables, on different fields, in which outside experts come to speak on the latest research.

Sometimes these workshops include site visits of potential grant recipients, which bring donors directly in touch with an issue. The Connecticut Council on Philanthropy, a grantmakers association, held a half-day-long roundtable in September at a much acclaimed charter school in New Haven. The session included a tour of the school and presentations by the state education commissioner and other experts.

“What these panels do is help donors understand the challenges that organizations face,” says Nancy Roberts, president of the Connecticut Council. “When they come in, donors often don’t know enough about a subject to know what questions to ask an organization.” The panels also offered specific funding advice. For example, charter schools desperately need capital to construct or renovate buildings since, in Connecticut at least, the state only covers operating expenses.

These workshops also provide donors a chance to network with other people interested in similar issues. “We do a lot of partnering,” says Deborah Fugenschuh, the president of the Donors Forum of Wisconsin, which recently held roundtables in the arts, economic development and program-related investments. “Foundations and donor advised funds can get together to do a joint project to make their money go farther.”

Conducting Your Own Research
Developing expertise doesn’t have to stop at workshops. Cynthia Klug, a donor relations officer at The Cleveland Foundation, recommends The Foundation Center’s libraries, located in Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and at the center’s headquarters in New York City. Also, government agencies and large independent foundations sometimes put online reports about the latest research in different fields. As donors becomes more involved in funding a particular cause, they also find themselves meeting directly with the leaders of nonprofits who can discuss not just the performance of their organizations but also the state of the field itself.

Philanthropists who delve deeply into the fields they support find the giving experience to be more fulfilling. Until now, for example, Beckenbach’s fund has limited its grants to his children’s alma maters and two local public colleges whose presidents he personally knows. Now that he has attended a few workshops, Beckenbach is looking for programs at the high school and elementary school level—maybe even early childhood centers. “I suppose that I come away with more questions then I do answers,” he says. “The more I find out, the more complex the problem seems.” But he sees his deliberation to be a good thing. “I’ve gotten into philanthropy a bit more, and that’s definitely satisfying. I will be much more confident that the decisions I make will be the right ones.”

Matthew Schuerman is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Copyright 2004 Community Foundations of America
Used with permission

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Posted at 3:07 PM, Oct 27, 2004 in Peace and Justice | Performance Measurement | Philanthropic Strategy | Scaling Philanthropy | Permalink | Comment