Six Years, Six Important Lessons About Philanthropy

Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group
Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group

Six years ago, I began working with individuals, families, foundations and businesses across the United States — helping them design, implement and evaluate a wide variety of ways to make philanthropy more impactful for themselves and their communities. I have been privileged to assist dozens of clients.

Plus, I have written 72 columns on strategic philanthropy – columns that have been published in newspapers and other media around the world.

Throughout this process, I have learned many lessons about what works best. As I launch the seventh year of this practice and these columns, I would like to share six key lessons.

Giving can benefit the donor as well as the beneficiary. Most of us think of philanthropy in terms of altruism – the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. Although altruism is a desirable trait, there are in fact real benefits for the donor in giving.

By working together around shared values, families can become stronger and healthier. By creating a “safe zone” around the activity of giving, families can rebalance the rules of engagement and encourage the participation of rising generations as equal partners in decision-making with their elders.

Businesses engaged in community philanthropy see improved employee recruitment, engagement and productivity, as well as increased customer loyalty and an enhanced social license to operate. Strategic philanthropy also improves profitability.

Giving and volunteering to help others come with health and longevity benefits that are well-documented. People who meaningfully engage in repairing the world live longer, healthier and happier lives.

“Top down” philanthropy is limited in value and not sustainable. Families and businesses alike have stakeholders. Engaging them has powerful benefits.

In families, each generation has its own interest in the values and impact of philanthropy. Rising generations look at these activities through a lens that can differ greatly from the lens of the wealth-creating generation. As a result, they have much to offer.

In businesses, stakeholders include employees, shareholders, customers, vendors, regulators, lenders and leaders. Each offers a valuable perspective on the role of the company in the community and how good corporate citizenship can enhance its business.

The “peanut butter” approach to giving has less impact. Many philanthropists employ the “peanut butter” approach to giving – spreading their charity thinly over a wide area. Going deep instead and focusing on a limited number of carefully selected causes is far more engaging to stakeholders and much more likely to achieve a meaningful result. In this way, philanthropy can be transformational — not just transactional.

Donating after death is less satisfying than donating during life. During life, we all want to conserve enough resources to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. However, many of us can easily achieve that goal and still engage in some sort of philanthropy. A financial advisor can help people predict what they’ll need to live securely and provide for their heirs. Using the remainder to give during one’s lifetime provides learning, growth and fulfillment — none of which, as far as we know, can be enjoyed from the grave.

Don’t ignore the other 95 percent. Philanthropically committed capital – in foundations and donor-advised funds — is all available to help achieve charitable mission. Unfortunately, foundations often deploy only the 5 percent minimum required payout while the rest remains invested. Impact investing using MRI, PRI and SRI tools aligns all philanthropically committed capital with mission – thereby achieving much greater impact.

Effective philanthropy is more than writing a check. Becoming an effective philanthropist (rather than merely a generous donor) means planning to optimize the efficacy of giving. The same intellectual resources and rigor that were used to earn money in the first place should be applied to philanthropic efforts to distribute that money. Research, analysis, strategy, organized implementation, evaluation and adjustment are critical investment tools which, when also applied to philanthropy, can achieve better results.

Back in 2010, I wrote in my first column: “Philanthropy is like love. The more you make it a cornerstone of your life, the more you’ll find the joy, meaning and satisfaction in living.” These words rang true then and – based on six years of experience – ring even more true today.

This post originally appeared in the Denver Post on July 10, 2016. It is reposted here by the author with permission. 

About Bruce DeBoskey

Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist working across the U.S. with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses and foundations design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on philanthropy. More information at or @BDeBo.

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