3 min read

You’ve probably heard this Lao Tzu quote before: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The great philosopher’s sage wisdom, of course, is simple: you must begin.

Yet in beginning one’s charitable journey, we often make two common mistakes. One is our failure to get started at all. That happens when we aren’t sure how to begin, where to give, or why we are giving in the first place. The other mistake, though, is to plunge right in without a plan or direction, merely giving to whatever charitable request crosses our transom.

A thousand mile journey with no destination only serves to wear out a lot of walking shoes.

In their book Giving Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results, Tom Tierney (a business leader and philanthropist) and Joel Fleishman (philanthropic leader and scholar) offer a useful road-map for donors ready to take a more strategic approach to their giving.

They don’t mince words: “Setting out to do ‘good’ isn’t enough. You will accomplish far more if you set out to accomplish something specific.”

Identifying Your Values

Strategic giving begins with a look in your own heart. What do you genuinely care to achieve in terms of societal change? Is there some social ill you would like to see eliminated, or some policy you believe must be changed?

Are you more likely to engage with a newspaper article about a new food pantry’s work, a great jobs training program, or the one about a Congressional debate on poverty elimination programs?

That last example speaks to a central point Tierney and Fleishman want to make.

One of the most basic trade-offs is whether to ease current suffering or work to address its root cause…Both are fine options. Which one you sign up for and where you say no will be a function of your values and beliefs.

You might have noticed the unpleasant truth in that last statement – sometimes you have to say no. In fact, once you’ve clarified the focus areas for your giving, you’ll be saying no a lot. That’s ok. We’ve talked before about the unique and powerful spontaneous order evident in American philanthropy. Other donors will have as their number-one priority those things that you like, but aren’t your top focus, and vice versa.

The authors make a point to say that philanthropy is personal. Deciding on the areas you care most about will come down to factors no one else can dictate for you.

If you haven’t started giving, think about the issue areas that get you most excited. Or flip that around. Comedian Whitney Cummings develops material by considering what makes her mad in daily life. You might think of the social issues that frustrate you most to identify the areas where you want to focus your philanthropy.

Achieving Success

Identifying where to place your dollars is one thing. How do you know those dollars are doing any good?

First, it is worth noting that charitable giving toward a goal does not lead to overnight success. For some business leaders making their first forays into philanthropy, the slow pace of change is a disappointing surprise.

Tierney and Fleishman note that being clear on your values becomes critically important as you continue along in your philanthropic journey. That clarity “can provide a strong incentive to stay the course” as you wait for obvious signs of progress.

The value-selection process you’ve already done also allows you to build a road-map for your giving, but in reverse.

A theory of change starts with the change in the world you want to see and works backward to lay out everything you think will need to happen to bring it about.

In other words, success comes from building a strategy. This includes, among other decisions:

  • Identifying organizations engaged in your issues
  • Identifying other philanthropists or thought leaders who are passionate about the issue
  • Understanding what efforts have been made in the past
  • Considering whether the timing is right to tackle the issue
  • Examining the gaps in the market of ideas around the issue

Don’t think you have to strike out on your own in order to solve a problem. “The objective, after all, is to solve the problem, not reinvent the wheel,” they note. Again, success comes from strategy, not merely from a hard-charging nature. It certainly does not come from money alone.

Ready For that First Step?

Success in philanthropy is not a product of luck. Avoid the distractions that will inevitably come. Be clear in your focus. “Absent a clear, thoughtful strategy,” the authors write, “philanthropy will always under-perform against its potential.”

Squandered philanthropic capital leaves everyone worse off. Spend the time knowing your values. Use them to guide your strategy. Be patient, stay focused, and success will come.

Now that you know where you want to go, Lao Tzu is right – it’s time to take that first step and begin. Knowing where you’re going will inspire you to take that second, third, five hundredth, and ten thousandth step toward the better future you know is out there. 


This article was originally published at the Intentional Giving Blog, where you can read more of Peter Lipsett’s writing.

Leave a Reply

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