The Case for Self – Reflection

Here at Stanford PACS, we often refer to philanthropy as a journey—a journey with both anticipated and unexpected experiences and great opportunities for learning. Over time, you will almost surely explore new focus areas and find new opportunities within existing ones. More fundamentally, you will develop new skills, more confidence, and greater courage as a philanthropic traveler. Expeditions that once were unthinkably remote and daunting will seem within reach. That said, philanthropy is not a static activity and creating social change takes time and does not happen in a linear fashion. Some days can be outright frustrating or “meh.” During these times, it is often helpful to reflect on your practice at both the individual grant and top-down levels. Here are some questions that we have found helpful in evaluating own giving activities:  

At both the individual and “top down” look of my collection or portfolio of grants—how do I personally feel about the following?  (Essentially, when I pass on, did I leave the world a better place?)

  • Impact of my donations
  • Progress toward my intended goals/objectives
  • Investment toward a larger, future goal

What was my intent and/or acted strategy in terms of being philanthropic? Was my giving driven by a desire to “lend a hand,” that is, have I been providing general operating support that has enabled an organization to move the needle and achieve its goals and objectives? Did I do this through funding:

  • Direct service programs
  • Research initiatives
  • Policy/advocacy strategies

Or, through an effort to make a bigger impact by trying to:

  • Change mindsets or behaviors
  • Change systems

Or, have I been trying to build organizational capacity to drive an outcome or expand opportunities or capacity for the organization to perform/deliver results and outcomes?

For a given time period, what were the results? Were there any unintended positive and/or negative effects?  

In terms of my philanthropic and grantmaking practice, what did I learn this year? (This is often what keeps us in the game and prevents us from “running to the hills.”)

  • What particular moments of joy/satisfaction did I have and why?
  • What problems have I encountered and why?
  • What new skills or new knowledge did I acquired, improve upon, or enhance?

From a top-down perspective, what is the current composition of my collection or portfolio of grants? Are there some patterns/themes to my giving?   

  • Focus, area of interest
  • Size of grant
  • Duration or grants (i.e., multiyear)
  • Geographies covered
  • Activities that are “new” or “innovative”

Were there any changes outside of my philanthropic activities that might encourage me to change direction, expand my reach, or retract from my giving?

  • Larger political, economic, or environmental trends
  • New relationships, obligations, and/or introduction to new networks
  • Emerging opportunities to create greater change or experiment in new areas
  • Changes in my own personal view of the world

Going forward, what would I do differently?

  • Adjusting current goals?
  • Capitalize on new opportunities?
  • Adjust the mix of my grants to reflect changes in the larger environment (political, economic, or social)?
  • Re-invest in existing organizations, programs, and activities?
  • Try new approaches or fund new organizations?
  • Change my grant strategy/structure?
  • Pull back from my giving?

Each of us will have a different and valuable philanthropic journey. That said, sometimes we may lose sight of why we embarked on the trip. We hope these moments of reflection will give you some measure of satisfaction, as well as inspire you to grow and develop in your practice.  

This article is part of an ongoing series of posts from the featured philanthropists, host committee and advisory board members, scholars, practitioners, and leaders who shared their expertise at the 2019 Philanthropy Innovation Summit.