A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Take a Step Back and Think About Your Impact

This spring in Minneapolis, a group of funders met at the Minneapolis Jewish Federation to learn about updates to their grants management software and step back to think about their impact. As we started to talk about impact, I was asked the two questions I hear in almost every discussion on the subject:

What is impact?

How do we have a greater impact?

Impact looks different for different funders, of course, and everyone’s path to creating more impact varies. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities and ways funders can learn from one another.

In Minneapolis, we used Exponent Philanthropy’s Ramping Up for High-Impact Philanthropy toolkit to guide our discussion. The toolkit isn’t prescriptive, but it helped everyone in the room to start answering their questions about impact.

What is high-impact philanthropy?

Although impact is different for everyone, our conversations in Minneapolis reinforced several threads about impact.

  • Clear outcome goals—Whether quantitative or qualitative, short- or long-term, clear goals are essential for understanding your impact and measuring your progress.
  • Deep knowledge of focus areas—The knowledge you acquire when you focus your giving is critically important to revealing urgent needs, opportunities, trends, and key players.
  • Effective and coordinated strategies—Match your strategies to your goals. Include specific approaches to grantmaking and other non-grant strategies such as influence, convening, and collaboration.
  • A learning plan and practices—Incorporating your learning into your strategies is too often overlooked in the pursuit of impact. Make sure your board and staff are taking the time to learn from your work and adjust accordingly.

How do we create more impact?

Common themes also emerged as the funders who gathered in Minneapolis discussed how they could increase their organization’s impact.

  • Make time to think big—It is so important to take time away from your desk and away from your to-do list to think about what you are trying to accomplish with your funding. Building in this time can be hard, and thinking big can get scary, but the more you do it, the less intimidating things become.
  • Start small—Don’t get caught up trying to fix everything at once. The Ramping Up for High-Impact Philanthropy toolkit can help you think through where to start and how to divide your efforts in manageable buckets.
  • Build buy-in—If you are getting ahead of yourself, your work may not be as efficient as you’d like. Some funders shared great approaches to evaluation, ways to help further focus their giving, and ideas for cross-team collaboration. These funders also acknowledged that, if your key decisionmakers aren’t engaged in the work and ready to help maximize your impact, these efforts may go unrewarded.
  • Prevent burnout—Everyone agreed that you cannot expect one person to lead your charge toward impact alone. Building engagement takes time and effort across multiple fronts.

If you want to maximize your impact, take time at your next board meeting to zoom out from your routine tasks to think big. Thinking about your impact can be hard, but, like any exercise, the more you do it, the easier it gets and the greater your results.

Content manager Brendan McCormick develops resources and programs for members, focusing on investments and community foundations. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Brendan worked as the grants and awards coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation; program coordinator for outreach, instruction, and communication at University of Maryland’s College Park Scholars Public Leadership Program; and as a fellow at the Greater Washington Community Foundation.

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