"What Do You Do?" 5 Things to Know About Philanthropic Advisors

When I meet people for the first time and they ask what I do, I get a thrill in the telling. They often have their own vague ideas, but after hearing my answer, I invariably hear “Wow, you have an amazing job!” Oh yeah. I absolutely do.

This blog about what I do as a philanthropic advisor and why working with someone like me can be, dare I say, not only incredibly rewarding, but also fun. This post is written for major donors, of course, but also for financial advisors, trust and estate attorneys, tax specialists, and any professional working with charitably-minded, high-net-worth individuals who may be “stuck” when it comes to their giving.

Before I dive headlong into the details of the work, I will first answer a basic question: “What exactly IS a philanthropic advisor?” Well, we are those professional advisors you hire to help guide the charitable aspects of your life. We are thought partners to individuals, couples, families and estates who want to become more intentional and impact-focused with their giving. We advise on appropriate giving vehicles, help you discover both empirically and emotionally what you care most deeply about, and help you understand your impact. But that’s just the tip of iceberg. We do so much more.

Some philanthropic advisors specialize in issue areas (international giving, women and girls, etc.) or specific types of philanthropy (effective altruismsocial justicecollective giving). Others specialize in different types of clientele (women, international families, the mega-wealthy, novices, companies small and large, etc.). Regardless, all are dedicated to making giving more meaningful and productive for the donor as well as the beneficiary.

And now, here are five things to know about what I (and Philanthropic Advisors in general) do:

1.   We know the field. The world of philanthropy is incredibly diverse and complex. Philanthropic Advisors are knowledgeable about giving vehicles, strategies, and opportunities that can make giving to charity joyful and meaningful. We are here to answer questions: Should you establish a Donor Advised Fund, a foundation, or both? Can you donate land, art, or real estate to fund your giving? To whom shall your gift be given, when, and under what terms? We are skilled at working with financial advisors and attorneys to help you sort out the best options available so that you make the wisest possible decision to meet your charitable goals.

2.   We know the issues. Philanthropic Advisors stay on top of the issues to help advise their clients on best practices in the field of giving. We are polymaths. We are able to take deep dives with you into your issue area, help you discern the best organizations with whom to engage and how, and even make strategic introductions to help you develop your own learning community. And when we don’t have the answer, we have deep and wide connections to professionals who do. 

3.   We help you get at the “Why”. When you’re ready to get more intentional with your giving, and maybe increase the size of your gifts, it’s no longer enough to just “write a check”, giving on the fly. At some point, it becomes necessary to become more strategic in affecting positive change. We ask deep and meaningful questions to help you discern the “why” of your giving. At Phila Engaged Giving, after an in-depth Discovery Period, you will receive a comprehensive Wealth and Giving Planthat outlines your mission, vision and values; a giving budget, and the specific methods you will employ to achieve your goals.

4.   We facilitate the tough conversations. Are your family members aware of their potential inheritance, or how to manage it? Is your multi-generational family all on the same page about who you’re giving to and why? For some, these can be touchy topics, but Philanthropic Advisors are skilled at facilitating these conversations with grace and knowledge. We can help your family grow closer by planning and reflecting on values and interests that lead to intentional decisions as philanthropists. 

5.   We help you stay focused. We all have busy lives juggling work, family, school, and so much more. We know you care about the non-profits you are committed to and want to do more with your giving, but let’s face it. That noble goal is pretty easily lost in the hustle that is our daily grind. Philanthropic Advisors are here to remind you of important deadlines, opportunities, optimal times to give. We keep our eye on the ball so you don’t have to.

You likely have already hired lawyers, an accountant, and financial advisors (if you haven’t, call me) and those relationships are fairly well-understood. However, as philanthropy is getting ever more attention with the looming great wealth transfer, philanthropic advisors, like Phila Engaged Giving, are becoming necessary to understand the connection between money and meaning. If you are charitably-minded and are able to donate a sizeable amount each year ($100,000 or more), you should consider adding a strategic Philanthropic Advisor to your team. Doing so will help you reach the next level of charitable giving and expose you to a new world of meaningful opportunities. 

Faith and Charity

Photo by  Billy Pasco

Photo by Billy Pasco

Depending on the part of the country in which you live, it may not be obvious how central religious giving is to the philanthropic sector in the United States. Donors in parts of the country that are more religious, tend to give more, give more widely, and volunteer more. For example, Southern donors give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity—religious and secular—compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent. Churches, temples, mosques, and their non-profit supporting agencies deploy billions annually to aid people all around the world. 

The value of generosity is a concept that has deep roots in many faiths. However, given that next month hosts the high holidays of the three Abrahamic faiths (Ramadan in Islam, Passover in Judaism, and Easter in Christianity), this blog post explores the role of giving in each of them.

For Muslims, giving is one of theFive Pillars of Islam. “Zakat” (meaning to grow in purity and is focused on charity or alms-giving) is an annual payment of 2.5 percent of one’s assets, considered by many as the minimum obligation of their religious giving. A majority of Muslims worldwide make their annual zakat payments as a central faith practice.

Above and beyond the required zakat, many Muslims make additional gifts (referred to broadly as “sadaqa”). Interestingly, the word shares the same root as the Jewish “tzedakah,” meaning justice. Muslim giving also focuses primarily on the poor. Of course, charitable giving is not just for the rich. For those with no money to give, the Prophet Muhammad considered even the simple act of smiling to be charity, a gift to another.

In Judaism, the Hebrew Scriptures refer to “tzedakah,” literally meaning justice. Tzedakah is considered a commandment and a moral obligation that all Jews should follow. The commitment to justice places a priority on their giving to help the poor. Beyond giving just time and money, rabbis even spoke of “gemilut chasadim,” literally meaning loving-kindness, or focusing on right relationship with one another as the prerogative of religious giving. 

Even more broadly, an ancient Jewish phrase, “tikkun olam,” meaning to repair or heal the world, has been adopted by many religious and secular causes. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush all spoke to a vision of “tikkun olam” in their speeches. 

Similarly, Christianity has considered giving a key religious practice. Many Christians still look to the Hebrew Bible and the tithe, which involves giving one-tenth of an individual’s income, as God’s commandment. In the New Testament, Jesus not only spoke of giving a tithe but challenged followers to give far beyond it. 

For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus challenged the rich, young ruler to sell all his possessions. Pursuing those values, a long monastic tradition has seen men and women taking vows of poverty to give themselves to the work of their faith. Today, while the tithe might not be practiced by a majority of Christians, most understand the practice of giving as a central part of their faith, especially in December as a mark to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

When I think of my own background, I reflexively thought that our Catholic family didn’t have much connection to philanthropy. But upon reflection, I realize that we embodied the consistency, generosity, and intentionality that I counsel in my clients. I remember so clearly that moment every Sunday at Mass when the ushers would walk up and down the aisles with a basket at the end of a long pole that reached in front of every sitting congregant, quietly imploring them to make a deposit. Every week, my father’s jacket pocket contained an envelope, pre-filled out by the Parish, with a contribution inside that he dutifully added to the collection. My sister and I, anticipating this moment in the Mass, pestered our parents for loose change, or even sometimes a bill, to drop in when the basket passed in front of us. In that moment just after making my contribution, I felt grown-up, a part of something, and proud to be joining others in giving. 

Those childhood feelings still inform how I give today, and I am not alone. Among Americans who give to any cause, 55 percent claim religious values as an important motivator for giving. The Discovery Process at Phila probes deeply into your values and how they inform your giving. And in this work, religion is not ignored. Regardless of the basis of your faith, most who grew up in a religious environment can speak to how the rituals, rules, and expectations have left their mark—for good or for ill. This exploration helps our clients reflect with intention and authenticity on what exactly informs the “why” of their giving. 

Instead of simply giving as part of a routine, it is worthwhile to explore the role of faith and values in your philanthropy. Doing so can provide insight into, among other things, the type of organizations you might support, your expectations around impact, and how or if you decide to become more involved with their work. And it is worth remembering too that including your children in your giving ritual, no matter how simple, lays good seeds for a robust philanthropic future.

Having a greater understanding for and appreciation of the charitable mandate in so many faiths, we might see that we have more in common with each other than we might realize. 


This post references statistics from The Chronicle of Philanthropy and uses descriptions of religions giving practices from The Conversation under the Creative Commons license.


Giving by High-Profile Individuals

Author and philanthropist, JK Rowling

Author and philanthropist, JK Rowling

Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Pitt, LeBron James, Mark Ruffalo, Oprah Winfrey. These entertainment industry superstars not only lend their names to charitable causes around the globe, they are also among the growing number of celebrities collectively giving over $1 billion dollars to causes ranging from the environment, to education, race and gender issues. Whether it’s J.K. Rowling giving away 16% of her net worth in just one year—with $160 million in donations to various charities—or Colin Kaepernick’s million-dollar pledge to organizations working in oppressed communities, celebrities are increasingly using their powerful voices to affect change.

Guiding those on the global stage through the charitable giving process requires a different approach than working with non-celebrity clients. With any client, Phila moves only as fast as the speed of trust. Trust and integrity are the keys to building the rapport necessary to begin our process. We begin by asking why are you interested in philanthropy and why now? Individuals with a public persona need to spend considerably more time than private individuals asking themselves the big questions around their giving because their success stems directly from the authenticity they display. Philanthropic choices lay bare your personal values to the world. You need more than just money and good intentions; you need to have a reason for giving and as well as a plan.

So what can you expect working with Phila?

Focus. Attention to and focus on not just the client, but their family to ascertain what is most important to them and why is central to our interaction. Our advisors acknowledge the full spectrum of individual and family values, needs, fears, joys, and sorrows—the human and spiritual complexities that come with great wealth and fame. Working with Phila assumes your willingness to engage in self-examination, to ask yourself probing and difficult questions, and to commit to answering them honestly. Questions like: “How did I get here? Who had to make sacrifices to make my success possible?”

Alignment. With all of our clients, the foundational work of planning for philanthropy does not involve reading balance sheets or writing a check. The very first indicator that a charity is a contender for your gift is if their mission aligns with your values. Thus, we spend a significant amount of time exploring who you are as a person. Being in alignment with a cause you publicly support makes the mission match all the sweeter and feels good not just to you the donor, but to the organization you are supporting as well. 

Authenticity. If your personal beliefs and experience are in alignment with a cause, the public will see your advocacy as authentic. Our firm is not about publicity. While it’s true that lending a well-known name to an issue can have positive outcomes for both parties, our driving force is forging authentic relationships based on altruism and shared values. Having a true, deep connection to an issue makes it more likely that your experience as a philanthropist will be rewarding.

Diligence. We are diligent in recommending not only which organizations to work with and how best to support them, but also the infrastructure needed to support your giving. Should you have a foundation or donor advised fund? And if it’s a foundation, should it be operating or non-operating? Many do not realize how complex giving vehicles can be; especially when you consider tax, estate planning, governance, evaluation, and the sustainability of your enterprise. Phila will help you make the right decisions based on your unique needs. 

Discretion. For many, giving is not about recognition it’s about the work. Many prefer to work silently in the background, and out of the spotlight. (Prince’s philanthropy comes to mind.) Based on a client’s preferences, we advise on giving anonymously, the best charitable vehicles to use based on how public you want your giving to be, as well as how to use one’s platform for advocacy. Regardless of your choice, Phila does not publicize who any of our individual clients are, as we believe in creating a private, non-judgmental space to learn and develop your charitable profile. 

Competency. We are experienced in working with individuals, families, and institutions to help our clients get the most out of their giving. Beyond the core competencies required in the social sector (such as, due diligence, governance, compliance, best practices), our greatest skills are the “softer” ones—clear communication, the ability to listen and to show empathy, and a responsiveness to the multiple demands on clients who lead busy, complex lives. 

Collaboration. No one person can do it all. Working with Phila means you gain access to a team of individuals who can address the complicated needs of every client. Whether it’s connecting you to wealth managers, attorneys, personal coaches, or PR agencies—or  working with your established team of professional advisors—we at Phila do not work in a vacuum. We are collaborative by nature and recognize that philanthropy is an expression of the whole person with a variety of needs. 

There are many ways the wealthy and famous can get involved in philanthropy. For those individuals who are looking to connect in a profound and meaningful way to issues they care about, who want to be a part of organizations doing the important work on the ground, and who want to use their talents as well as their treasure, a deep engagement with philanthropy can be especially rewarding. But before you begin in earnest, be sure to take the time to establish a clear understanding of who you are as a person so that your giving will reflect the values that shape your life. Doing so will guide you toward the people out there who are on the front lines of changing the world and need your support.  

A Trio of Books on Philanthropy to Get Your Mind Churning

Looking for thought-proving reading on the current state of philanthropy? Well, there has a been a flood of new books that have, in the words of Jeff Bezos in an entirely different context, “turned over the log” of philanthropy so that we can examine what has been hiding in the dark.

Three important books were published in 2018 that implore us to think critically about the role of philanthropy and wealth in our society. Whether you agree with them or not, you will definitely leave with an opinion and be better informed.

 The first is Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the Worldby Anand Giridharadas. The journalist dismantles the elites of "big philanthropy" and their institutions that maintain the status quo to their extreme advantage. Their giving is palliative rather reparative; in that it refuses to address the root causes of the suffering they’re trying to alleviate because to do so would threaten their position and lifestyle. He speaks with all of the zeal of the converted as an ex-member of the club of thought leaders and pundits who reinforce the notion to the world’s mega-wealthy that their good works is enough, rather than endure the true sacrifice necessary to enforce systemic change. 

 The second is Just Giving: How Philanthropy is Failing Democracy, by Robert Reich (not the former Secretary of Labor of the same name). The philosopher's argument is similar to Giridharadas' in positing that the immense power the very rich hold in philanthropy is inherently undemocratic and erodes the underpinnings of our aspirations toward justice. He goes further to argue that big philanthropy has a big problem with ethics and unfair uses of power by its being unaccountable, nearly perpetual, and hugely tax-advantaged. Reich also suggests ways to use legislation to bring more equity into the philanthropic sector. 

The final book is Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balanceby Edgar Villanueva. If you read his book last, you might think it will be a balm to the previous two books’ searing critiques. While his tone is gentler, he is no less forceful in his arguments on the extreme inequality in philanthropy and society. What is unique here is that Villanueva assesses our current state of affairs through the lens of colonialism. His thoughtful and unique arguments explain his view that finance and philanthropy have not strayed far from its imperialist beginnings. However, unlike Giridharadas and Reich, Villanueva offers Native American-rooted wisdom to help us rebalance and heal from these centuries-old wounds.

 These three authors will no doubt be remembered as the ones who shone a light on philanthropy and encouraged us to be better.