The Effective Philanthropist: A Conversation with Melissa A. Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors was originally founded to serve America’s most famously philanthropic family. Today the firm is an independent, nonprofit service based in New York City that helps major donors focus their charitable giving and maximize its effectiveness. In the conversation that follows, President and CEO Melissa Berman talks about channeling philanthropic intent, designing an effective giving plan and the paramount importance of asking the right questions.

What inspires wealthy individuals to become philanthropists?
There are many reasons that motivate people to give. For some, giving is part of their core values. For others, it’s part of the family heritage that they want to preserve. Some people have a sense of gratitude—they realize that their success has an element to it that was really beyond their control, and they want to make it possible for other people to have the same opportunities that they had. Some donors are really captivated by the idea of creating a legacy—their sense is that what they achieved in life is not what they earned but what they did with what they earned.

What’s the best way for donors to get engaged in the causes they care about?

Sophisticated individuals have lots of interesting, innovative ways to learn about charitable giving. Some people like to do it in an experiential way. They go to visit places, and they go to talk to lots of people. Other people approach giving opportunities using a more classic research analysis and strategy model. They figure out what the problem is, who the players are in the field, and approach it as if they were making an investment in a new industry. Both are great ways to get more fully engaged as a donor.

Disaster relief is top of mind for many donors today. What advice do you have for donors as they seek to make a difference in the wake of the hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast?
Donors want to be able to respond immediately and give something to the charity organizations that tend to be the first-line responders. That’s a wonderful, valuable and appropriate impulse.

For people who have additional resources, we talk to them about working through community foundations. These organizations are on the ground and are extremely knowledgeable about the communities they serve. They have the networks of relationships and the structure to distribute funds over time and with careful planning. They don’t have to do a “needs assessment”—they already know the community.

At Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, we touch base with community foundations when we’re working with donors who are interested in a specific geographic area. They are great sources of knowledge and generous with their expertise. For some donors who want a more individualized program, we can be the bridge between them and the community foundation in their area.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ mission is to help donors create thoughtful, effective philanthropy. What is the single most important factor in the effectiveness of a giving program?
We talk with donors who are either embarking on a new philanthropy program or reassessing what they’ve been doing, which happens with increasing frequency. We try to focus their attention on four big questions:

• Why am I doing this?—It’s really important for the donor to understand what their motivation is.
• What do I want to create? Or, what do I want to change?
• How do I want to give and assess the results?
• Where do I want to be involved?

You’ve written that donors need to think not just about what issues matter, but how change should happen. Can you give us some examples of a thought process that donors can use to figure out how they want to effect change?
The most important thing is to start by asking yourself, “What is it that I want to change?” And you want to make sure you’re funding the solution, not the problem. That sounds simple, but it’s not. Let me give you an example. You might think, for instance, “There’s tremendous poverty in Africa, so I’m going to donate funds to organizations that provide relief in Africa.” But that’s funding the problem.

Funding the solution is saying, “There’s a lot of poverty in Africa, and what I’d like to change about it is the lack of opportunity. So I’m going to fund organizations that deliver microcredit to the poor.” Or, “There’s a lot of poverty in Africa, and a huge amount of this is because the food distribution system is so appalling and hunger is so pervasive. So I’m going to support organizations that are trying to do something with the pervasive problem of hunger in Africa.”

What sorts of issues should donors weigh if they’re thinking about getting involved personally with an organization?

We encourage people to ask the same questions about volunteering that they ask about their donations, and that is, “What is it that I want to change, and how can I make that change happen?” But in this case you’re working on behalf of an organization—and you need to be making sure that you and the organization are in agreement as to what needs to change.

There are three things donors should do. First, you should be realistic about how much time you’re going to be able to commit. Second, you need to make sure you know how comfortable you would be in a public role. Third, ask yourself, “Where can I be of greatest use to the organizations that I want to help?”

You’ve said that your parents deeply influenced your own involvement in philanthropy. How so?

It was through both words and deeds. I could see in their daily life that they put time and effort into things that would make the world a better place. And they made clear in what they said that people with resources had an obligation to make the world a better place—and by resources they didn’t necessarily mean money. I was a volunteer as a student. I participated in an after-school tutoring program and a theater program that performed for people who didn’t have access to the arts, including the elderly and prisoners.

How are you passing this legacy on to your own children?
With young children, it’s very easy to start them off with something very tactical. You can open the cupboard and have them take a box of pasta or a can of soup to a place where they are collecting food for the needy. As kids get older, they have a chance to participate in different organizations. My kids participate in City Harvest, a food rescue organization, and after school they pick up small amounts of food and deliver it to soup kitchens. In New York City, that’s difficult for a truck to do—but it’s not difficult for a teenager.

Copyright 2005, Community Foundations of America. All rights reserved.

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Posted at 1:06 AM, Oct 20, 2005 in Arts and Culture | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment