Kessler’s Next Gen Philanthropy

Eric Kessler founded Araballa Advisors in 2005 to advance the practice of high-impact philanthropy.  The work he does through Arabella is helping people become more effective donors who focus on real world problem-solving. Check out this article about Kessler from


Aristotle & The Moores: The Mindset of an Effective Philanthropist

Recently, Gordon and Betty Moore restated their “Founders’ Intent” in order to provide guidance for current and future Trustees of their foundation. As I read the new statement on the Foundation website, I found myself filled with hope and inspiration. Their vision, wisdom and aspirations for their philanthropy are beautifully intertwined in this thoughtful, future-focused document.

Reading the Moore’s donor intent made me wonder what our world would look like if everyone with surplus wealth experienced a complete paradigm shift in their thinking about philanthropy. That is, if they were on a journey to become Effective Philanthropists. Would human suffering be minimized? Could complex problems like climate change and health be successfully addressed? Would we see less poverty, hate and war in our lifetimes? Call me a dreamer, but I’d certainly like to think so!

Now you might ask, what kind of shift in thinking am I referring to? Well, I’ll use a well-known quote by Aristotle as a jumping off point.

Aristotle wrote, “To give away money is an easy matter, and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power-nor and easy matter. Hence, it is that such excellence is rare, praiseworthy and noble.”

Simply put, Aristotle suggests that while anyone can be a donor, we should seek to master the art of effective philanthropy. He challenged his contemporaries to be “Noble and Praiseworthy” by figuring out the who, what, when, why and how much of charitable giving.

Doing this takes a shift in thinking or what I’ll call, “The Mindset of an Effective Philanthropist”.

Effective Philanthropists believe that giving goes well beyond the good feelings they have when they write a check. They have a tremendous sense of responsibility to maximize impact with their giving. The goal of their philanthropy centers around real change and measurable improvements.

Effective Philanthropists use their hearts, their analytical brains and employ scientific methodology to make the best giving decisions possible. They value knowledge and constant improvement. They engage with outside experts to learn and objectively evaluate the performance of their giving.

Effective Philanthropists believe they can facilitate real change and solve problems through strategic philanthropy.  They also see opportunities to extend their impact at the intersection of giving and investing. They are rewarded by the good feelings that come when they see tangible results.

Gordon and Betty Moore model this mindset through their thoughtful and visionary statement of Founders’ Intent.

I think Aristotle would praise The Moores for their mastery of philanthropy. And I’ll continue to hold that vision of a world filled with Effective Philanthropists!!

Evaluating The Health & Performance of Your Favorite Charity

In my discussions with philanthropists about their previous giving experiences, I often ask how they determined if the recipient organizations were healthy and high performing. The answers often include, “I didn’t really know” or “I trusted them because so-and-so served on the board”, or “they’ve been around for years”, etc.

Now, imagine someone asked that same question about an investment firm. I assure you, the aforementioned answers would be entirely unacceptable.

For strategic philanthropists who approach charitable giving like investing, having evidence that an organization is high performing and healthy is critical to decision-making. No savvy investor would choose to back a company without research.  And likewise, no savvy donor makes a major investment in an organization prior to conducting a thorough analysis.

The most complete and predictive evaluations of non-profit organizations are conducted by professional and experienced researchers. They understand the non-profit sector and employ proven methods to analyze key characteristics of high performing and healthy organizations.

Focusing on an organization’s overall health and performance, not just the financials, ensures a holistic assessment of its ability to deliver and sustain desired impact over time.

Using third party evaluations from professional researchers provides donors with conflict-free evidence that informs their giving decisions and increases the potential for maximum philanthropic impact.

If you want to learn more about how evaluations can take your philanthropy to the next level, let’s talk!



Women’s Philanthropy: Following in Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s Footsteps – She Made a Difference, Not Just a Donation

As you know, March is Women’s History month in the U.S. It’s the perfect time to reflect on our past in ways that inspire our future. For me, one of the most inspiring and significant philanthropists in our country was Mary Elizabeth Garrett.

Mary was a strategic philanthropist before the phrase was even conceived! She used her intellect, position in society, wealth and network to advance higher education for women. She accomplished this at a time in American history when women did not have the right to vote nor were they provided opportunities to attain advanced degrees, most especially in the sciences and medicine.

Ms. Garrett was the favorite child of railroad tycoon, John W. Garrett. Mr. Garrett, a member of Johns Hopkins University’s board of trustees, often brought Mary to various business meetings with the likes of Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Mary would later use the lessons from these interactions to become one of the most strategic and successful philanthropists of her time.

When her father passed away, Mary became one of the wealthiest women in America. It was then that she began her philanthropic journey.  Disturbed by the lack of serious college preparatory schools for women, Mary leveraged her resources and her network of other wealthy heiresses to establish Bryn Mawr School in Maryland.

At Bryn Mawr, young girls studied modern and classical languages, history, math, English, science and physical education.  While these topics are common areas of study today, in 1885 when the school opened, this curriculum was cutting edge for girls.

Another philanthropic accomplishment of Mary’s was opening the doors to a formal medical education for women.  Ms. Garrett and her friends approached Johns Hopkins in 1887 with a gift of $35,000 (equal to $899,000 today) to establish a coeducational school of science. Unfortunately, this offer was rejected!

A couple of years later, the school was in an unenviable financial position, which caused a delay in opening its new medical school.  Mary and her friends saw an opportunity to leverage their philanthropy and advance women’s education.

They approached the trustees again and offered to provide the funds needed to open the medical school, but in return, it had to begin admitting qualified women.  The trustees accepted the terms and the gifts, totaling $500,000 (equal to $12,800,000 today), making Johns Hopkins the first modern medical school in America.

The impact of Mary’s two main philanthropic investments is certainly present with us today. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, in 2011, women made up 48% of those graduating from medical schools across America.  This is due, in part, to the vision and passion of Mary Elizabeth Garrett and her friends.

Are you ready to follow in Mary’s footsteps?  I would love to know what kind of impact you want to see with your philanthropy.  Contact me and let’s talk.

Preserving Donor Intent with a Well-Constructed Gift Agreement

One of the most important things philanthropists can do to preserve donor intent is to enter into a gift agreement with leaders of the recipient organization. I recommend that EVERY significant gift be accompanied by a detailed gift agreement.

Gift agreements set appropriate expectations and create mutual understanding between the donor and the organization. In addition, they provide guidance to current and future leaders regarding the use of the gift. For donations to a large institution, gift agreements should be signed by the donor, the President of the organization (or designee) and the President of the supporting foundation.

Typically, the recipient organization or it’s foundation will provide donors with a draft gift agreement using their approved format, which may vary depending on the level of sophistication of staff, governance and gift acceptance policies.

In my experience, University foundations are most likely to have comprehensive and detailed gift agreement formats. Keep in mind, these formatted gift agreements are written from the perspective of the recipient organization and often seek to limit restrictions on the gift, which may or may not be in alignment with donor intent.

Gift agreements include multiple elements. The most important components are 1) a detailed description of how the donor wants his/her gift to be used and 2) a summary of the intended impact the donor wishes the gift to produce. This is often called a “Purpose” statement within the agreement. Other key elements could include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Amount, term and type of gift – including payment schedule for pledges
2. Type of asset/s to be gifted
3. Description of how changes to the agreement will be addressed
4. Description of all fees and fee schedules associated with the gift (gift fees, management fees for endowed funds, etc.)
5. For endowed or quasi-endowed funds – Description of investment policies, payout rates, distribution schedules, management structure for investments, reporting cycles, etc.
6. Donor Recognition – including preferences for anonymity or details regarding public recognition, for example, naming of facilities, programs, positions, etc.
7. Impact and financial reporting schedules – description of how and when the donor would like to be informed about the use of the gift
8. Alternate use of funds statement – description of how the donor would like their gift to be reallocated should the original purpose no longer be practical or possible to carry out

For all gift agreements, it is prudent to consult with a philanthropy advisor prior to signature to make certain donor intent is fully reflected in the agreement and to avoid any misunderstandings. If you have any questions or would like more information about writing a well-constructed gift agreement, call or send me an email…I’d enjoy the opportunity to help!

Giving to a Large Organization: Are You Talking to the Right Person?

Are you considering a significant gift to a large institution such as a University or Hospital? If so, one of the first and most important steps is to discuss your interests and desired outcomes with the right person within the targeted organization. Your donor intent and possibly your legacy depend on it!

Most donors have a high level of trust when giving to Universities and Health Care Organizations. This trust isn’t completely misguided as many large institutions now have policies and procedures in place for accepting and stewarding philanthropic dollars. However, my experience has shown that failure to communicate charitable goals and desired outcomes with the appropriate organizational leader can increase the risk of misuse or even nonuse of your gifted assets.

Within the organizational structure of any large, non-profit institution, there are multiple leaders with varying degrees of authority and competing priorities. Identifying the leader who can sign off on and take responsibility for delivering on your donor intent can be extremely challenging.

While starting with a member of the development or foundation staff is appropriate for the initial discussion, when you are getting serious about your gift, you need to move up the ladder and involve a senior leader in the institution. A knowledgeable development professional should be able to help you identify the appropriate Executive, Dean, Department Head or Chair with which to discuss the details of your gift.

Once you are confident that the leader with which you’ve discussed your gift understands donor intent, has the authority to deliver desired results and will take responsibility for doing so, it is imperative to engage with your advisors to draft a gift agreement that provides protections and restrictions regarding the use of your gift. Keep an eye out for my next post, which will address important elements of a gift agreement.

In The Non-Profit Sector, Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better

Every year in the U.S. from say, October thru December, various media outlets publish lists of “Top Non-Profits” in an attempt to provide readers with a “giving guide”.

Most of these lists are ranked by a single factor, typically annual budget or fundraising income, which implies that bigger is better.

Ranking organizations by size in no way informs us about the health and efficacy of an institution. Furthermore, it omits smaller Non Profit Organizations (NPOs) that may be more successful than their big budget counterparts.

I have held fundraising positions at large universities, global non-profit organizations and health care systems. And while I understand their value and appreciate the accomplishments of these big institutions, I am keenly aware of the challenges inherent in gifting to large NPOs.

Challenges include lack of transparency, staff turnover, competing priorities, lack of shared vision and creativity, slow and politically motivated decision-making, waste, difficulty developing partnerships and focus on policy and process…all of which could potentially cause problems fulfilling donor intent.

I’m not arguing against gifting to large organizations. However, there are complex issues that should be fully understood before making a significant charitable investment in one.

My next series of posts will highlight key areas of research that inform giving decisions and increase confidence in philanthropy.