Questions are surprisingly powerful. The right questions spur learning, fuel innovation, create clarity, build trust, mitigate risk, and save money. To have a transformational impact as a philanthropist, you need to start with the right questions. Want to know the number one question all donors should ask?
Ask “why?” to understand your purpose. Ask “why?” to question assumptions. Both answers are critical to transform your giving. If you ask “why?” with these two reasons in mind, you will attain clarity, inspire others to join you, and turbocharge your impact.
First, let’s look at asking “why?” to understand your purpose. In his best-selling book Start with Why, author Simon Sinek implores readers to determine their “why” to identify their purpose, cause, or belief. People need to understand why they do what they do, not just what they do or how they do it. Organizations should know their raison d’être. He explains that people do business with those whose purpose aligns with their own beliefs. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
Why is knowing your “why” important in philanthropy? I believe it’s because clarity trumps strategy. You need clarity on your charitable purpose (your “why”) before you can accomplish much with your charitable giving. Simon Sinek notes that Martin Luther King, Jr., “ . . . gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, not the ‘I Have a Plan’ speech.” You need to know your purpose before you develop your plan. Others will join with your purpose because it aligns with theirs.
The Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation in Akron, Ohio, knows their purpose. They understand the “why” of their family philanthropy. In fact, they used their “why” to develop a unique approach to organizing how they give. While the foundation’s mandate is “to repair and enrich the world through thriving communities,” the answer to why that foundation exists is slightly different: To “build and sustain a multigenerational family culture of tzedakah,” which means “philanthropy” in Hebrew.
That’s right. Joe Kanfer, chair of GOJO Industries (the inventors of Purell), along with other family members, determined that the purpose of the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation is to encourage their multigenerational family to be philanthropic while facilitating thoughtful giving. It’s especially important to them to come together to do this work as the family grows and spreads out around the world. As a result, they organize their grantmaking into themed three-year cycles. Every three years the family chooses a societal issue, learns about it together, and makes grants based on what they learn.
Second, ask “why?” to question assumptions.
In philanthropy, there is no shortage of causes to support. There is no dearth of social or environmental problems to tackle. Likewise, there is no shortage of good-sounding solutions. In fact, there are all kinds of important “shiny objects” you hear about at philanthropy conferences or read about online. Things like trauma-informed care, emotional intelligence, crowdfunding, and collective impact. If you don’t ask “why?” you might begin funding one of these solutions without knowing if it’s right for you.
Let’s say your foundation’s executive director announces, “I recommend we fund a new citywide campaign to increase public transportation.” That sounds like a great idea, right? Who could be against more public transportation? It helps people get to school and work, while saving the environment. But the question you need to ask at this stage is, “Why?” In this case you might ask, “Why should our foundation support public transportation instead of other citywide goals?” or “Why does transportation advance our strategy?” or “Why should we be involved in policy advocacy?”
Asking “why?” does not imply that an idea is bad. Public transportation, trauma-informed care, and crowdfunding are all hugely important.
When you ask “why?” to question assumptions, you get to the substance of why your philanthropy should be involved in this work. Asking “why?” helps you revisit the overall purpose of your funding and keeps you focused on the long game.
I’m not advocating that you channel your inner two year old. Don’t ask “why?” to be obnoxious or incessantly contrarian. Ask “why?” to make sure whatever you are doing is the right thing for you to do at that time. It couldn’t be easier. It goes like this:
- “We should start a foundation.” Why? Why a foundation and not a donor-advised fund? Are we ready for the responsibility of managing a nonprofit organization?
- “We should create a Giving Tuesday campaign.” Why? Have we thought about what we want to accomplish? Is this the best way to encourage others to give, or are there other options?
When you ask “why?” to understand your philanthropic purpose and question assumptions, you are well on your road to philanthropic impact.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor. Learn 11 more questions all philanthropists should ask in her new book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change And What They Can Do To Transform Giving. Pre-order your copy by March 22 to receive free bonus offers including a private consultation or having Kris speak at your next event.
Learn more: Register for the March 23 webinar featuring Putnam-Walkerly and hosted by Giving Compass.
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