A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Donor Intent: Building a Legacy of Impact Through Partnerships

Donor intent matters. A bevy of articles, consultants, and examples are available on how to craft donor intent statements and how to communicate them. Whatever the content and form, they should be dynamic, reciprocal learning tools that engage family members and beneficiaries. Extreme care needs to be applied so donor intent is not a one-way, power relationship. At its best and most effective, it is a shared connection that embodies cooperation, mutual exchange, and honest give-and-take.

Engaging grantees

Too often, donors (and philanthropoids) wrongly see no need to listen to grantees, heaven forbid. The idea of “strategic philanthropy” in practice too frequently fosters donor conceit and that stale old “I’ll go it alone because I know best” attitude. Donors are still so easily seduced by the hubris endemic in philanthropy, which “has no natural predators,” to use Tony Proscio’s wonderful phrase. This produces very poor relationships indeed. It usually generates anemic results and unsustainable change.

We live in a world of complex and evolving social needs. We are buffeted by rapidly changing methods to address these needs: some astonishing and some snake oil. These are knowledge problems no donor or foundation can surmount alone. Good intentions simply don’t reach impact without a cooperative commitment, humility, and hard work. The good news is that my experience has been that many donors and family foundations understand the difficult nature and remarkable ability of these reciprocal relationships with grantees to translate intent to meaningful societal impact.

Engaging different generations

Building reciprocal relationships with grantees is difficult. Consider, then, the terror and euphoria of different generations around the family kitchen table! This is a different kind of partnership of serial reciprocity, because the connection is passed from generation to generation. Each subsequent generation reaffirms, changes, adapts, and finally passes on again what becomes an ongoing family legacy.

Donors almost always desire some form of legacy. They have values and tasks they want to live past them. They also frequently desire to hand down a general philanthropic commitment. And yet, too often, donors and their statements are barriers to a viable legacy in the same ways they work against impact. They demand inflexible adherence, dismiss questions and discussion, and thereby poison the trust that makes generational relationships productive.

Family members, in turn, almost always desire a donor’s guidance—not strident lecturing or a deaf ear. I have seen them go to great lengths to seek it here, there, and everywhere, even rummaging through decades of checkbook stubs to find out a donor’s values and priorities.

In these efforts to build a legacy, donors (or the current “head” of a family) have a special obligation to express their personal views clearly, openly, and with great sensitivity. They need to respect the same for the next generations, as do the subsequent generations toward donors and their successors. In doing so, one begins to model cooperative behaviors. It has struck me anecdotally that family foundations with a strong generational legacy often also have the relationship skills to work more successfully in partnerships with grantees/beneficiaries.

Partnering for better accountability

In the end, the reciprocal relationships that drive impact and legacy have something to tell us about a more inclusive and healthy element to accountability.

Although everyone wants accountability for foundations, the problem is who are the deciders? Commentators on foundations often worry that foundations do not have shareholders (owners) or customers in the usual sense. Nor do they have voters as our democratic institutions appear to have. A self-perpetuating board or untethered executive director, then, can be open to the charge of self-interest and unsupervised play. The scrutiny of journalists and the oversight of governmental agencies is too easily uninformed or simplistic. And philanthropic policy wonks often fail to understand the motivations or the realities of philanthropic practice.

By contrast, the first level of accountability should be: are we—as grantors and grantees—pursuing the intent and impact we have set for ourselves? This is a question all donors, board/family members, and recipients/beneficiaries should continually ask in unison. The donor/grantor and beneficiary/grantee sides of the reciprocal relationship are jointly accountable, which requires a robust, ongoing discussion about results, accountability, and the future.

A family philanthropic legacy is also accountable to and through the reciprocal relationships that cascade across generations. It is relevant to ask and even judge a donor’s intent and a family foundation’s legacy by its handling of its development over time. The point is not that foundations have to abide by a specific donor intent, though that is a relevant question. The point is that donors and families should be able to communicate how they think about their philanthropic legacy. How do they handle the difficult discussions about change, evolving social needs, grantee partnerships, and their future hopes for that legacy?

We simply can’t ignore donor intent (or its iterations). But, it requires authentic, two-way partnerships—within families and with grantees—for the knowledge and skills to attain genuine results. Together, these variegated reciprocal relationships encourage real learning from the past and the present, and into the future. The future growth and effectiveness of this core American tradition of family philanthropy probably depends on just how well we juggle all this.

Charles Hamilton was previously executive director of The Clark Foundation and director of philanthropic advisory services at Bessemer Trust. He has written widely on philanthropy.

A longer version of this essay was prepared as a Summit Essay for the National Summit on Family Philanthropy: Donor Intent & Real Impact: Can your family have both? (San Francisco, Feb. 20-21, 2017), sponsored by the Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy, Grand Valley State University.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *