Strategic philanthropy: What it is and why you should practice it

We are in the midst of the holiday season – the “giving” season – during a pandemic and economic crisis. Many donor organizations have become financially hard-pressed, necessitating that they curtail or narrow their charitable giving. At the same time, many recipient organizations – nonprofits which address educational, health, hunger, human development, housing and other social problems – face enormous new demands for their programs and services.

With these simultaneous problems of greater needs and diminishing resources, there is no more urgent time than the present for funders to reassess the what, why and how of their activities.

If your organization is not already practicing strategic philanthropy, now is the time to begin doing so.

What is strategic philanthropy? It is the practice of aligning an organization’s charitable giving with its broader mission, values and goals. It also ensures that the social good of an organization’s donations to worthy causes is matched with a corresponding benefit for the donor.

Some might find that notion cynical. We’re conditioned to think that donations of money, goods or volunteerism should constitute an altruistic act. But, as much as we like to idealize it, to some extent most charitable giving is transactional in nature.

The two common mistakes that most donor organizations make are:

1. Not being honest about their full motivation for giving and hiding behind that vague, overused phrase of “giving back to the community”; and

2. Not being focused on how doing good for the community should maximize benefits for itself.

Look at it this way: Your company, professional association, labor union, tribal government, or trade association will best be able to serve the community and your members/employees while continuing to perform acts of charity if it survives and thrives. Being deliberate about the benefits you hope to reap from those same charitable acts simply advances your organization’s staying power to perform its mission and contribute to society. When the economy is on such shaky ground as it is now, this makes especially good sense.

Strategic philanthropy can help organizations accomplish a variety of goals, including:

• Establishing (or rehabilitating) an external reputation or brand

• Bolstering the organization’s culture or internal reputation

• Asserting a leadership position on an issue or within a community

• Strengthening relationships with existing stakeholders (employees, members, customers, guests, vendors, neighbors, etc.)

• Building new relationships

• Galvanizing other donors to join in support of a cause

None of these goals is ethically compromised or compromising in and of itself. And all of them can benefit the public at the same time they benefit the organization pursuing them.

When you donate your money, goods or services, you will amplify its strategic value for yourself (and often your recipients) by an accompanying exercise of moral leadership. This can take several forms:

• Organizing your giving thematically, even packaging it as a campaign focused on a single problem and thereby bringing greater public awareness to it.

• Being a thought partner: Not just giving away some of your money, goods or time, but also your and your employees’ expertise and best thinking.

• Using the power of convening: Lending your reputation and prestige to recruit and partner with other groups to bring more resources or attention to a problem you want to be known as helping to solve or ameliorate.

Too often, organizations let vague goals drive their charitable giving. While it may cover a lot of bases, their scattershot approach to donations will diffuse their ability to make a real difference in the community and do little to advance their own strategic imperatives. Applying the principles of strategic philanthropy will help you avoid these pitfalls, better integrate your charitable activities with your core mission or business, and let you derive the maximum benefit of your good deeds.

Helping others is one of the most characteristic impulses defining our humanity. At this time when the world is so unpredictable and nothing can be taken for granted in the business and professional world, strategic philanthropy offers a way to realize the adage, “you do well by doing good.”

We’d be delighted to hear from you and help develop or fine-tune your organization’s strategic philanthropy plan.

The 2020 elections: Minnesotans opt for divided government (again)

Now that the 2020 election campaign season is behind us, it’s worth asking ourselves what it all meant. While the ballots were still being counted, the presidency and control of the U.S. Congress received most of the attention. But the real-world impact for most of us will be more greatly influenced by state politics. It’s striking to note that more than $23 million was spent by the state’s traditional major parties (Republican and DFL) to influence state legislative races.

Here are my key takeaways from the 2020 campaign trail and the days that have followed:

We need to educate voters not only on how to vote, but on what happens after they vote. Like any political nerd, I was glued to my TV screen, Twitter feed and about 30 different tabs on my computer trying to get results on election night – which turned into the day after the election, which turned into two days after the election, which…you get the point. Even my most astute colleagues (and many state legislative candidates) questioned immediately reported results as inaccurate. On election night, our state’s elections website was showing 100% of precincts reported but also communicated extremely low voter turnout, which didn’t jive with anything we anticipated. By the next day, things seemed to right themselves here in Minnesota, but nationally you could sense mass confusion on how ballots were being counted, particularly in how absentee or early ballots were being calculated.

On top of this, the rhetoric about rampant voter fraud led many voters to doubt the fundamentals of our democracy – and I don’t blame them. Candidates, political parties, and even our nonpartisan election judges and tabulators tend to expend all their energy getting voters to the polls but forget about telling them what comes next. This election cycle, one valuable takeaway is that voter education shouldn’t end when someone casts their vote and collects their “I Voted” sticker. Communicating clear expectations (both in advance of and throughout the process) about how ballots will be counted, how results will be reported and when results may be known should be a top priority for our elections officials.

Political parties need to listen to constituents (not activists) to truly meet voters where they are at. As mentioned, we saw an incredible amount of money spent by political parties and their allies to influence Minnesota’s legislative elections. We saw lit pieces, heard radio commercials and (in some parts of the state) saw local cable ads talking about issues that simply were not the issues voters were talking about at their kitchen tables. From DFL allies tying candidates to cleaner energy proposals or Republican allies keeping their candidates close to issues of law and order, Minnesota voters spoke clearly that those messages weren’t really going to work for them.

We see this in DFL legislative candidates’ inability to sweep the suburbs and regional centers, which many anticipated. DFLers tied a lot of their messaging to the national platform and attempted to link state Republicans to the shortcomings of President Trump, hoping this would gain them suburban seats like they did in 2018 with success. For their part, Republicans hoped to make gains in the suburbs and greater Minnesota by tying state DFL legislative candidates to Governor Walz’s exercise of executive power and uncomfortable social unrest.

We are hearing more and more about Minnesota voters’ motivations and it appears that both parties missed the mark a bit. More voters are “in the middle” instead of on the fringes that major political parties play to. I think there’s enough we know about this election cycle that hints to political parties that they should pay attention in order to have electoral success moving forward – Minnesota likes balanced government, and they will vote for it.

This leads me to my final takeaway:

All politics have the chance to be local. This cycle, there’s a lot of evidence of ticket splitting: Joe Biden outperformed U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar; some state legislative Democrats in greater Minnesota underperformed Joe Biden; some state legislative Republicans outperformed Donald Trump in the suburbs; the list goes on. It has long been a strategy of political parties to seize upon the strengths of the candidate of the highest office in election years, the theory being that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Here in Minnesota, we saw that voters differentiate their support of Joe Biden and their frustration with state DFL electeds. And we saw voters who support the work of President Trump, but feel state Republican leaders have fallen short. Both political parties are going to need to do some soul-searching to better understand these voters. For incoming legislators, these November election results should tell them a lot about what kind of elected officials their constituents demand come January 2021.