Behind the Curtain: How Do Philanthropic Advisors Influence Foundation Strategy?

Thursday, October 23, 2014
by Chris Cardona, Director of Philanthropy, TCC Group 
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a philanthropic advisor? At least 30 people have, the number who showed to a packed session on "So You Want to be a Philanthropic Advisor?" I had the honor of sharing my perspective on this question, along with my co-panelist Caroline Woodruff of Bessemer Trust, with a diverse range of PNY members and other interested individuals. 
We discussed a range of topics, including professional development, career paths, finding the time to reflect on our practice, and cultivating the range of expertise needed to make client relationships successful.
There's one we didn't get to address in as much depth as we would have liked: the role of philanthropic advisors in shaping funders' strategies. Given that in a recent Foundation Center survey, 27% of the more than 1,000 foundations responding had used consultants for strategic planning – which doesn't even include the work wealth managers do with their clients – this seems like a relevant question for the field to understand better. 
Here are a few things I and my colleagues at TCC Group have learned from our experience:
  • You have to meet the client where they are, even if you don't agree with it. Many of us get into philanthropic advising because we care passionately about certain issues, or want to see the field of philanthropy move in certain directions. We have strong opinions, which help make us better analysts and critical thinkers. But if you imagine that philanthropic advising is a path to advancing your agenda on your terms, think again. It’s a service profession, and your responsibility is to help your clients generate impact on their terms. Different advisors and firms have helped to advance the field’s thinking on different issues, which is important and valuable work, but the day-to-day of advising is much more often about serving the client’s agenda. 
  • You need the humility and patience to seek to understand before being understood. The path to influence begins with your ears. The most talented advisors we’ve met are exceptional listeners, who are able to synthesize what they hear and frame it back to the client in a way that advances joint understanding. Receive, process, respond – in a way that moves the ball down the field. This deep listening at the outset is one of the most gratifying parts of the work – achieving shared insight about a client’s goals and circumstances. 
  • You have to understand the client's world deeply - their incentives, their motivations, their worldview, and who they're accountable to. People have a myriad of motivations for engaging in philanthropy – ambition, love, desire for influence, giving back, creating a legacy, service, and many others. And institutions create different sorts of incentives – corporate giving programs are embedded in larger companies, community foundations must serve donors, and private foundations are accountable to their boards. You need to understand the setting in which the jewel of strategy will be embedded – will it fit? Who will own the strategy internally and externally? What’s the capacity to execute? To make hard decisions? To say no? These all shape the parameters of what you can achieve at a given moment.
  • THEN you're ready to talk strategy in a meaningful way. Once you’ve met the client where they are, taken the time to understand their motivations, and grasped the incentives of their institutional context, then you have the foundation on which to build an effective conversation about strategy.
  • You need to be willing to challenge the client's assumptions – once you’ve been willing to challenge your own. Once you’ve shown that you’re willing to enter and understand the client’s world, you need to revisit your own understanding of the issues, and provide a higher level of service by challenging the client’s assumptions that in your judgment need challenging. This friendly pushback is much more effective when you’ve gained trust by listening, learning, and understanding first.
  • You need to understand how data fit into their world, and tailor your use of it accordingly. It can be tempting to lead with data and research to make the case for why a particular strategy makes sense or doesn’t. But people have different levels of tolerance for data and metrics, and it’s essential to understand what people can here and how they can absorb it effectively. For some clients, statistics about need help them understand the situation and identify priority areas. For others, narrative and examples of what things can look like when impact has been achieved are more compelling – data support those stories rather leading them.
  • Grantee voice is a powerful aid. Finally, you need to recognize the limits of your own influence. Grantees are often – but not always – a more compelling voice in persuading funders of the value of a particular approach. Figure out how to marshal grantee voice to help ground the strategy in the realities of the work.
For funders, have you used philanthropic advisors in developing your strategy? What’s your experience? What are best practices for such engagements that the field can understand and adopt?
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