Remember the first time you were asked to speak in front of an audience? Probably you were inclined to decline. Perhaps you thought you would embarrass yourself somehow. You were likely a bit frightened to step into the limelight. You eventually said yes, though.
Accepting the invitation to make more of an impact with your grantmaking is a little like saying yes to that first speech. It is easier to say no and keep on with what you are doing, which seems to be doing just fine, thank you. It asks for a more active way of grantmaking, and can certainly move your philanthropy out of the background and into the forefront. It forces you to think about the process of grantmaking and also its results.
That is what “getting to impact” is all about: getting results and making a difference that you, your grantees, and other interested parties can see.
Opportunities abound for donors to make an impact, whether they are changes in local, state, or national laws and policies; building a new park or facility; or improving sanitary conditions or food safety in other countries.
Achieving impact does not depend on whether your assets are small or large. What does matter is that you focus on subjects that are important to you, that you care about, and that you can affect positively with your grants.
Focus manifests itself in various ways. For example, if you make less than $100,000 a year in grants, you may choose to focus those grants in a particular geographic area such as your hometown. You can look into local matters and talk with knowledgeable local people about what might need doing that you feel strongly about and would like to improve. If you have more resources or a state or national footprint, you might focus on a particular field of interest such as the environment, or affordable housing, or education reform, and choose to engage in public policy changes in those complex subjects.
As a result of doing your homework on subjects that interest you, you will inevitably meet other people who share your interest, some who might add more grants, some others who do the work on a daily basis. Ask if they could use another “oar in the boat.” These can be your partners and collaborators. In many instances you will be surprised how many people are looking for your kind of help. By working together, you can leverage your limited dollars with others who share your interest and commitment.
Finally, remember that “Rome was not built in a day.” One of the great strengths of organized philanthropy is its capacity to take the long view and to persist over time until results start to appear. Change takes time. You have to persist if you want to make an impact.
Focus, partners, leverage, and persistence: that is a formula for achieving impact.
Along the way, consider giving some speeches about your progress!
Jerry McCarthy is a philanthropic and nonprofit advisor at Gerald P. McCarthy LLC. He previously served as founding executive director of Virginia Environmental Endowment(VEE) for 36 years. VEE’s grantmaking focuses on environmental conservation through pollution prevention, conservation of natural resources, and environmental literacy.