A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Find Your Guiding Purpose in Philanthropy

Contributing your full self, the best that you can be, is important in any kind of enterprise. In small-staffed philanthropy, it’s essential. Small funders who’ve made significant, outsized impact often say the knowledge, relationships, “street savvy,” and reputation they leveraged played the crucial role. They will say, “Money wasn’t the most important thing. It was really about being a catalyst, making things happen.”

If impact comes from using one’s knowledge, skill, talent, and passion, how does one access more of the powers within? And how can you align your powers with your broader aspirations and moral compass?

What Is Your Guiding Purpose?

One powerful way is to spend some dedicated time looking inward to find “your guiding purpose,” and working over time to align your work in philanthropy with that purpose. Achieving better alignment helps you integrate your passion, knowledge, and talents with the needs and opportunities in your community and the world.

But what is one’s “sense of purpose”? Many of us don’t stop to really consider it in an intentional way.

Think of your guiding purpose as something that gives you the feeling that you are doing what you are meant to do. Through your philanthropic work, it expresses itself as a personal and individual quest to accomplish or bring about some change in the world. Following a moral or ethical call to service or leadership around some cause could be one form. A guiding purpose could also be a quest to develop and use a unique talent, quality, or skill you possess, or to respond to what you see as sparks of potential in the work of someone you might want to support.

People of any age, any stage of life, and any role—donor, foundation trustee, staff, or next gen member—can find it valuable to more intentionally discover or clarify their unique gifts and passions, and employ them in ways that honor their sense of purpose.

Experiences Finding Purpose

We have been intrigued by this quest for several years.

John was very deliberate about identifying guiding purpose as a key to developing the Blackstone Ranch Institute with founder Pat Black in the spring of 2006. One of the first things they did was to engage in a process of aligning their inner inclinations, talents, and aspirations as individuals (their sense of what they were meant to do in the world) with their philanthropic mission. They tried to develop ways of operating that would enhance rather than detract from their strengths. Both of them approached things from an entrepreneurial spirit that honored the process of organic change, and they designed the Institute in ways that served that approach.

By doing so, they were able to minimize any friction that might be caused by a way of operating that ran counter to their personal values and deepest ways of being, allowing them to operate with something close to full integrity. Aligning with purpose also allowed them to respond to philanthropic opportunities because they were clear about what would be most fulfilling. They were doing what they were doing because it resonated so clearly with their purpose as individuals, instead of doing things because “that’s the way they should be done, or have always been done.”

Andy has spent years working with philanthropists, listening to small-staffed funders talk about their art and craft, and learning how some managed to achieve, over years, remarkable, extraordinary impact. He realized that his sense of curiosity, admiration, and passion for the work of these agile, creative funders could be useful to his organization and perhaps, the field. He could be of service as a chronicler and witness to their quiet, unsung leadership—a champion of small funders who embark on journeys of learning to convene, mobilize, advocate, and catalyze change on our most urgent issues.

How This Work Can Benefit You

We believe that clarifying your guiding purpose can greatly expand your power to:

  • See your aspirations as legitimate, take them seriously, and therefore make it more likely you will realize them in the world through your philanthropy.
  • Act with greater confidence, less fear, and less anxiety, because you are not governed by doubt as to why you are doing what you are doing.
  • Exercise the freedom to be creative and responsive to the opportunities for meaningful social change around you.

How does this come about? Acting with an awareness of one’s guiding purpose helps place yourself in real relation to the people and organizations you want to serve. You become less dependent on generic templates for action, standard grantmaking processes and procedures, status quo assumptions, or broad academic theories. You are more free to engage citizens in the community, trusting and relying on their essential knowledge and experience—because you have come to know and trust your own. You are more free to pay careful attention to the unique complexity of the issues you are trying to address, and to take actions that are relevant and attuned to real dynamics and needs in your community.

Knowing who you are and what you bring to the table frees you from worrying whether you’re doing philanthropy “the right way.” You will respond better to the originality of the moment, see the potential in what is happening on the ground, and seize the opportunity for action. You can be more flexible, creative, and adaptive. In the end, you will feel more confident about taking risks. 

Getting Started: Questions to Consider

If you are a staff person or family member at a foundation, being clear about your guiding purpose can help you consider what roles you might play in the philanthropy, and how you would like to influence the mission, desired outcomes, and strategies moving forward.

One way to reflect on questions like these, beyond or in addition to doing individual work, is to engage someone who is really good at listening, drawing people out, and asking follow-up questions. This could be a friend or family member, or a professional or peer coach.

In our work together over the past couple of years, we have identified questions that can form the basis for an inquiry into one’s guiding purpose. These are foundational questions—a start rather than a conclusion.

  • What does success mean to you in its broadest sense, one that encompasses your personal, professional and volunteer life?
  • What are you doing when you achieve a “state of flow”—the pleasurable feeling of being so totally immersed in a task that you lose track of the passing of time?
  • Is there someone whose work and style of expression you admire—a friend, co-worker, or public figure—and what is it about them and what they do that makes you admire them?
  • Is there a way of relating to people, or helping people, that calls to you? Is there a way of relating to the environment, or living in the world that you aspire to?
  • Are you curious about something, about the way it works? How someone starts a blog, a social enterprise, a social movement? How community organizing is done? How legislation or public priorities get developed? Would you like to learn how to do something new? Do you have a particular agenda for individual learning?
  • Does a certain role call to you—mediator, great listener, introducer, catalyst, coach, entrepreneur—in professional, volunteer, or personal life?
  • Is there a change you want to bring about in the world or in your community? Do you feel passion or outrage about something? Do you feel called to provide service or leadership?
  • How can you better align your sense of purpose and way of being with the operational protocols of your philanthropic work, and make sure that you and your staff or family are not doing things in ways that feel disconnected from, counter to, or inconsistent with your moral compass, talents, and aspirations?

Philanthropic work can be the highest expression of one’s aspirations, creativity, and sense of purpose in the world. Connecting with your purpose is essential in unlocking your potential.

John Richardson is executive director of the Blackstone Ranch Institute. During the early 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, John investigated the world’s most complex humanitarian relief operations in Africa and the Balkans as a troubleshooter for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He has also been an adjunct professor of international politics at the University of New Mexico, a mediator in civil disputes, and written about travel and politics for a variety of national publications. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in central Africa in the late 1970s. He lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. 

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