March 29, 2019

Get Before You Give: Honing Your Charitable Strategy

Author Jenna Mulhall-Brereton, Chief Philanthropic Services Officer

At National Philanthropic Trust, we work with some of the most sophisticated and generous donors in the world. But even the best of them struggle with the fact that they can’t do everything. The strongest philanthropists have defined charitable priorities, and a game plan to make a difference for the causes closest to their hearts.

With so many organizations out there worthy of support, how do you avoid “analysis paralysis”? How can you ensure that your philanthropy is focused—and has the greatest possible impact?

To develop a charitable strategy, here’s what you ought to get before you give:


GET CLARITY on your philanthropic goals.

Think about what’s most important to you, and consider your intended reach. Do you want your giving to stay local, or would you like it to have global impact? Do you want to support specific organizations, like your children’s school, or general topics, like education? Your charitable focus will likely change over time. Even if you revisit your goals yearly, articulating them will help you make smart giving choices.

GET BOUNDARIES around what you’re prepared to give.

Having a charitable budget helps you say no to funding requests that aren’t in line with your top priorities. Set limits for yourself to help keep you accountable to your intention. Think about what a meaningful gift to each of your top charities will amount to, and build in some flexibility for new giving opportunities. Also think about how much time you have to offer; that may impact how much research you’re willing to do, or whether you’re able to volunteer.

GET AN OVERVIEW of the organizations you plan to support.

Thanks to resources like GuideStar, donors have more access than ever to information about the nation’s 1.2 million registered nonprofits. But if there’s still more you want to know, go to the source. Attend an event hosted by your favorite charity, talk to friends who have volunteered there, or even reach out to development officers.

GET STRATEGIC about how to give.

Before you lick the stamp to mail a check or hit send on an online gift, think about whether other charitable vehicles might better suit your giving needs. A donor-advised fund (DAF) is a popular vehicle that functions like a charitable checking account, allowing you to receive a tax deduction up front and make grants to any qualified charity over time.

GET ADVENTUROUS with your giving.

Even once you’ve defined your priorities and done your research, you may have trouble deciding exactly how and where to give your charitable dollars. But it’s OK to take some risks. Think of your charitable portfolio like a stock portfolio. Make a small grant to an interesting charity and see what the result is. If it has an impact, and if you enjoy your philanthropic experience, give more next time. If it’s unsatisfying, rebalance your grantmaking strategy. Learning by giving is an excellent way to iterate on your philanthropic strategy.


Finally, get perspective. There is no one right way to give. These tips are designed to help you determine what strategy works best for your philanthropy, right now.

The key is to find a giving strategy that’s meaningful and sustainable for you. When you focus your charitable intent, you can be more impactful for the causes you support.