Some philanthropists decide to operate in the public realm early on. But others go public at some point over time, often when they feel compelled to act.
However it emerges, going public can be a pivotal transition point and a bold act of leadership.
The Troy Savings Bank Charitable Foundation quietly awarded grants in the area of homelessness for several years. Frustrated that the funding appeared to have little impact, the board reconsidered its approach.
Said Executive Director Leslie Cheu, “We asked, ‘Could we have a bigger impact if we brought more people—both agencies and funders—to the table?’ We joined the local Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness group and worked side by side with service providers and other funders who cared about homelessness. We supported awareness activities and joined with other funders to support initiatives that targeted the root causes.”
“Although we initially felt a bit exposed by publicly showing our grantmaking interest in homelessness,” continued Cheu, “it was the best way to engage others in the issue. ‘Going public’ has paid dividends in stronger relationships across all community sectors and the development of several supportive housing programs that are making a real difference in homelessness in our region.”
Philanthropists go public in ways big and small.
Openly gathering, sharing, and spotlighting information:
- Posing questions to a wide variety of individuals, groups, and institutions
- Supporting or commissioning research and sharing the findings
- Raising awareness by writing letters to the editor, using social media, or talking with key stakeholders
- Confronting wrongdoing, waste, or mismanagement
Funding and engaging in advocacy:
- Speaking out about important issues and priority needs
- Talking with elected officials and their staff
- Supporting organizations that do advocacy and lobbying
- Engaging in shareholder activism by using your power as an investor to influence corporate policies, practices, or performance
Convening and mobilizing:
- Gathering people, groups, and organizations to identify and address important issues
- Inviting others to participate in conversations—online, in print, or in person
- Mobilizing diverse partners to focus on an issue, coordinate efforts, and build collective will
- Championing the work of key grantees
- Funding new, promising organizations or programs and communicating your support to other funders
- Communicating your philanthropy and its impact to the public, inspiring generosity and promoting a culture of giving
If going public has the potential for such great impact, why don’t all philanthropists do it in bigger ways, or at all? Many real and perceived barriers come into play: limited capacity, fears (of unwanted solicitations, of failure, of saying or doing something unpopular), and preferences (to spotlight grantees, not your giving), among others.
What do we recommend for those interested in leveraging the power of a public presence?
- Choose the strategies most suited to you.
- Take small steps over time.
- Build on your reputation as an honest broker of information.
- Expand the networks that can support your work.
- Develop deep knowledge—and therefore confidence—by talking with people from all walks of life who have relevant experience.
- Develop a keen awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, so that you can act appropriately.
Through tiny steps into the public realm, great bounds, and often a combination of the two, many philanthropists are leveraging the host of assets they possess to make a difference for the communities, causes, and conversations that matter in today’s world.
Chief Program Officer Hanh Le leads our Programs and Services Team in guiding, connecting, championing, and elevating philanthropy with few or no staff. She has directed training, grant, and technical assistance programs for KaBOOM!, Community Technology Centers’ Network, and Peace Corps. Passionate about collaborative impact and community, Hanh helped launch the DC-area’s first Asian American giving circle, the Cherry Blossom Giving Circle. Follow Hanh on Twitter @HanhLeDC and Exponent Philanthropy @exponentphil.