SSIR x Bridgespan: Giving That Gets Results
SSIR x Bridgespan: Giving That Gets Results
Giving That Gets Results is an eight-week series of voices from the vanguard of giving. Philanthropists and foundation executives share how they are adapting their strategies, aiming for results, and measuring their impact to learn and improve. #givesmart

If the surprise of this year’s Black Friday was a sag in sales, the surprise of #GivingTuesday was the jump in engagement around philanthropy. We didn’t quite see lines of people camping outside nonprofits the night before, waiting to give (though one very funny parody video claimed we did), but we did see some positive numbers.

According to Blackbaud—which measured the largest data sample—there was a 90 percent increase in online giving over #GivingTuesday last year. Network for Good recorded a 74 percent increase, and Paypal showed a 123 percent rise in charitable donations.

The engagement of nonprofits and other civic organizations appeared to play a big part in the increases: Ten thousand partners took part in all 50 states and around the world. Participants sent more than a half a million tweets, and #GivingTuesday was the number-one trending topic on Twitter (when was the last time philanthropy placed there?). #GivingTuesday was even up in lights in Times Square.

We also saw some powerful campaigns. Baltimore came together as a city to raise more than $5.4 million for local causes. Good Ventures used #GivingTuesday to announce a remarkable $5 million matching grant to GiveDirectly, challenging supporters to match these funds during the giving season. The Red Cross went in another direction and spent the day saying “thank you” to those who help them all year around.

As we reflected on this remarkable uptick in #GivingTuesday activity, we looked back on the 25-plus philanthropists who participated in the Giving That Gets Results blogs, webinars, and videos—a series that drew the highest number of subscribers ever to a Stanford Social Innovation Review webinar (more than 2,500). What became clear was the imperative to fundamentally re-imagine how we build strategies and communities in the social sector so that they are more adaptive to an ever-changing and uncertain landscape. And we were struck by a common theme that kept surfacing: engaging constituents—that is, collaborating partners and beneficiaries—to more deeply understand what the sector needs and what’s working.

This sort of dialogue is at the heart of what we defined at the beginning of the Giving That Gets Results series as adaptive philanthropy, an approach to strategy that relies less on a linear, cookie-cutter analysis and rigid multi-year plans, and more on flexible decision trees and scenario planning. Adaptive philanthropists start by defining what is core to them—what they care about, what results they aspire to see—and are highly sensitive and oriented toward the external environment—what’s unknown and what’s happening with big external factors can upend everything. Keeping an eye on important sensitivities and assumptions, and learning as they go, becomes far more important than executing a strategic plan written many months earlier.

The philanthropic leaders who contributed to the Giving That Gets Results series raised the ethical implications of this reality. On the one hand, adaptive philanthropists need strategies that are both strong and flexible over time, informed by grantee candor on what’s worked and what hasn’t. On the other, it’s hard to get pure candor when you are writing the checks. How can funders garner honest feedback and data to learn if their donations are really making a difference? And if they are not, how can they adjust them? What responsibilities do they have to understand and fund the true capacity needs of beneficiaries and communities? And how can they hold themselves to higher standards—to learning and improving?

Here are just a few of their answers:

  • Matt Bannick and Stacy Donahue of the Omidyar Network described their government transparency initiative and how their work with stakeholders led to an innovative, for-profit platform for results.
  • Connie Duckworth founded ARZU Studio Hope with one overarching objective: to put as many Afghan women to work as possible in a fair labor setting. To get there, she employed strong monitoring and measurement to adjust her approach as she goes.
  • Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google Giving, described her “fail fast” approach to philanthropy and how technology helps quickly gather data from beneficiaries to improve program delivery in a targeted way.
  • Allan Golston of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described the critical role that direct teacher input and classroom observations played in understanding how best to improve education results for children.
  • Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, cited the need for “flexibility, nimbleness, and a willingness to adapt,” as well as a collaborative approach to problem solving, in tackling deep systemic problems like political polarization.
  • Steve McCormick, the president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, explained how engaging with inhabitants of the very habitats that the foundation aimed to protect, led the foundation to adapt its model from funding conservation to funding sustainability.
  • Laurie Michaels, founder of Open Road Alliance, saw that for want of relatively small amounts of funding, strategically sound initiatives got mired. Open Road busts such barriers, providing critical funding to nonprofits facing unforeseen roadblocks or unanticipated opportunities for impact.
  • Dave Peery of the Peery Foundation spoke of engaging grantees as customers, earning their trust and loyalty, to tackle problems as clear-eyed partners.
  • Padmini Somani, head of Salaam Bombay Foundation, described her organization’s approach to evaluating smoking cessation programs for Indian youth and the role that youth engaging other youth has played in getting positive results.
  • Jeff Walker, author of The Generosity Network, described how he uses “Jeffersonian dinners,” gently guided dinner conversations, to build community among grantees, volunteers, board members, and funders around issues affecting their organizations and beneficiaries.

In a recent post about #GivingTuesday, Bill Gates wrote that “effective philanthropy is no longer the sole province of big foundations that employ teams of experts. With the technology we have today, and with the innovations that are still to come, anyone with an Internet connection, a few dollars to give, and the time to do a little digging can become a more-informed donor.” Gifts like Good Ventures’ $5 million match encourage this “more-informed” donor to become a more engaged donor, to join others in partnership, passion, and purpose.

As the Giving That Gets Results series developed, it soon became clear that the old model of top-down philanthropy—philanthropy that is distant from on-the-ground realities and rigid in application, with hard-baked, multi-year milestones—is increasingly irrelevant. The leaders featured in the series have grappled with this transition—and their insights, including the critical role that constituent voice plays in effective philanthropy, point to promising paths forward for giving to get even better, more durable results.