Ask almost anyone even vaguely familiar with philanthropy what a foundation does, and the answer will likely be “they give money away.” That’s true, but what if instead the go-to answer was: “They improve people’s lives,” or “They transform communities,” or even, “They make a difference you can see and our community wouldn’t be the same without them”?

In general, checkbook philanthropy is great at addressing needs, but not so effective when it comes to solving the problems that create the need. For example, supporting a homeless shelter is a great way to meet the needs of those in crisis, but what if we addressed the issues that caused them to become homeless in the first place, like job loss, mental illness, or addiction?

I call this transformational giving. It also has other names, like addressing root causes, funding proactively, or moving the needle. But no matter what you call it, transformational giving is always working its way upstream, identifying an issue and following the trail all the way to the source—and to other tributaries that may feed the problem along the way.

Transformational giving requires that funders think about policies and practices that exist that may exacerbate the problem or at least maintain the status quo. It means looking for institutional or even individual players who are contributing to the problem (often unwittingly) and who could be valuable parts of the solution.

Transformational giving isn’t difficult, but it does require courage and creativity.

If you want to practice transformational giving, you should be prepared to do the following:

  • Decide on a specific focus. You can’t change everything, which means some things may need to be left to other supporters.
  • Articulate the problem, approach, and anticipated outcomes clearly. If you can’t explain it, you can’t change it.
  • Identify not only grantmaking strategies to meet those outcomes, but also other actions, such as advocacy or research, to achieve your ultimate goals.
  • Not work alone. Even the largest funder in the world can’t transform an entrenched problem on its own. You’ll need to find government, private sector, and nonprofit partners who are aligned for a common purpose.
  • Communicate openly and often. Good communication is the backbone of transformation. For people to be willing to change systems and practices that may feel comfortable and safe—even if they’re known to be detrimental—they need to feel informed, heard, and included in the process.

Read the full article about impact philanthropy by Kris Putnam-Walkerly at Putnam Consulting Group.