January 15, 2016

Stage 1: Exploring

In this stage, you will likely be considering a wide variety of causes to support. That’s okay; many donors start by writing checks to different types of organizations. If you want to be more strategic with your philanthropy, a good first task is to create boundaries marking what you will—and won’t—try to learn more about. At this stage, you will not be developing a strategy to guide your grantmaking overall; rather, you’ll be exploring your interests through discussions, research, and individual grants. At this point it’s important to be receptive to new ideas and data, even as you get increasingly clear on your values and beliefs, and your vision for your philanthropy.

You are in this stage if…

  • You have committed to getting more results from your philanthropy than you have in the past, and are exploring how best to do that.
  • You are new to philanthropy, or you are an experienced donor exploring a new field or content area.

Questions to ask

  • What people, problems, places, pathways, or philosophies do I care most about?
  • What philanthropic experiences have I found to be most rewarding so far?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • How much of my time and resources am I willing to spend on any one particular issue?

Things to do

  • Identify and discuss (with family members or associates you wish to involve) what values and beliefs will guide your philanthropy.
  • Articulate a learning agenda and research the landscape, discussing your ideas with practitioners, experts and beneficiaries.
  • Experiment with or "pilot" some initial grants supporting the ideas and causes you have identified.
  • Reflect on what you are learning to prune from your experiments and fine-tune your priorities.

Related Content

For the Gates-Buffett Challenge to Work, It Takes More Than Money
The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Donating money is a necessary first step in philanthropy, but it is only the first step. The real issue is having clarity on what success looks like and how money can help create change, before springing into check-writing mode.

Your goals for this stage

  • Identify your philanthropic anchors: the people, problems, places, pathways, or philosophies that you really care about—as well as a "will not pursue" list that clearly identifies what is out of scope.
  • Gather facts about the anchor(s) you have chosen to inform your grantmaking decisions.
  • Decide how much of your philanthropic portfolio you are willing to dedicate to this issue.


At this stage, one common trap is to get too wrapped up in trying to define the perfect approach or strategy before making any grants. At the other extreme, you risk remaining perpetually in check-writing mode, never choosing any one area to learn more about. Falling into this trap is not so much a question of making a wrong choice for your philanthropy as it is of failing to make a choice in the first place. To navigate these extremes, it can be helpful to create pilot experiments—clusters of grants that introduce you to the beneficiaries you’re hoping to serve, great leaders, and great co-funders. Such structured pilots can help you hone your focus; in 12-18 months, you’ll have a good sense of where you’ve been able to make a difference and where you haven’t, and how you can continue to learn, and make better, and bigger, decisions each grant period. In the meantime, you’ll have achieved some results with your early-stage investments.

Another pitfall is setting unrealistically high expectations—for yourself and for grantees. As a new funder in the room, you will find yourself the subject of great interest among potential grantees (and potential co-funders for that matter). The key is to be transparent about the stage you’re in—for example, that you’re in a learning mode—so that grantees don’t count on you for long-term support before you are ready to commit to a field, and before you know what it really takes to make change happen.


Example Journey: Peter and Jennifer Buffett

Peter and Jennifer Buffett’s lives were turned upside-down in 2006 when Peter’s father, Warren, decided to give each of his three children $1 billion for their foundations. “You’d better get home,” Peter said. “We got a fax, and I think our lives just changed forever.” That fax made their philanthropy, the NoVo Foundation, one of the nation’s biggest.

Jennifer and Peter, who had started nine years earlier with a $100,000 fund, serving poor populations in Milwaukee, began thinking on a global-scale. They dedicated two years of homework and travel to gaining clarity about their aspirations and how they would define success. What resonated for them personally? In much of the developing world, men have power and dominance, yet women and girls are saddled with holding families and communities together. As a result, the Buffetts decided to focus on helping girls gain economic power.

After getting clear on their direction, they got real about what NoVo could support and how. They understood that $1-billion—and how much they personally knew at the outset—was tiny compared with the magnitude of problems they cared deeply about. So instead of reinventing the wheel, they chose to make grants with an experienced partner—the Nike Foundation—that already had a strong program in place.

“The need seems endless.” Jennifer said, in an interview. “I consistently say: We’d really love to be doing these five other things, but we don’t have the resources for it. So we’re constantly talking about priorities. Are we over-promising, under-delivering? What is really reasonable? What are the greatest levers? How can we get the best results?”

>> Click here to read more about their philanthropic journey

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