by Kyle Peterson and Jeff Kutash, Co-Founders, Boldly Go Philanthropy

As former foundation CEOs, the most frequent question we hear from individuals and families with donor advised funds, hands down, is how do you identify the best nonprofit partners to invest in? With over 1.5 million well-meaning nonprofits in the US, it can be difficult to know which organizations can “get the job done.” But that was exactly the call we had to make when we led foundations and as we supported hundreds of private and family funders in our roles as philanthropic consultants with Foundation Strategy Group. When we boil down our decades of grant making experience, we can share four key principles. And per the title of this column, the starting point is you.

  1. Start with your values: Your life experience, family history, upbringing, and passions come together to form an internal compass. Keep that compass in hand as you undertake your philanthropic journey. In almost all cases, you will find that it points toward the issues, people, and places that you and your family want to impact and that it helps you identify the future partners you want to fund.
  2. Study up on your areas of interest: Before selecting nonprofits, do your homework on the problem you’re trying to solve. Go online and research the real needs and look at the data. A great technology assist is the Giving Compass, created by the Raikes Foundation to “help individual donors learn about issues, get involved, and give with impact.” The Giving Compass is a tremendous resource, chock full of advice, articles, and easy-to-use tools. And take the time to go below the surface. For example, if you want to help the homeless, go beyond just looking at shelters to understand the root causes of homelessness such as drug addiction, mental illness, or family abuse. With even a basic level of context, you will be much more prepared to confidently select organizations that you want to support.
  3. Get advice from others with experience: Local experts will have a strong working knowledge of local issues and nonprofits. Go online and find major organizations and funders who are involved in your areas of interest and see which charities they have supported. See if there is an expert at a local university. You will find many of these groups willing to meet with you, provide advice, and point you in the direction of effective nonprofits that fit the change you want to make. They will also help you learn from what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
  4. Focus on impact: Lastly, like we did in our formal CEO roles, we recommend solid due diligence of prospective nonprofits focused on their results. Organizations should be in good standing with sound financials. But cursory reviews (like you can conduct through Guidestar or Charity Navigator) don’t necessarily help you separate the great from the merely good. So we recommend you consider the following questions
  • Leadership: Can the executive team and board get the job done?
  • Track record: Has the organization demonstrated impact over time?
  • Collaboration: Does the organization partner well with other key stakeholders?
  • Sustainability: Is the organization set up to deliver impact in the long-term?
  • Service: How well does the organization treat its funders, staff, and beneficiaries?

As we’ve learned over many years, philanthropy and making change is a journey that starts and ends with you. In the long run, you’ll be most effective by letting your values guide your philanthropy coupled with doing your homework, leaning on strong advice, and not being afraid to ask the right questions to potential partners. And remember, trial and error is okay, as long as you are open to perpetual learning and being adaptive over time.

Jeff Kutash and Kyle Peterson are Co-Founders of Boldly Go Philanthropy which provides world-class advice and execution support to help philanthropists impact social issues and inequities in their community and around the world. Jeff is the former CEO of the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Kyle Peterson led all philanthropic work for the multi-generational Walton family. Both Kyle and Jeff have decades of philanthropic consulting experience, having built and led Foundation Strategy Group, along with years of service at McKinsey, Monitor Consulting, and Bridgespan. Boldly Go Philanthropy is part of AEF’s Philanthropic Advisory Firm Referral