Give Smart

Philanthropy that Gets Results


By Thomas J. Tierney

By Joel L. Fleishman

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A decade ago, Thomas J. Tierney left Bain & Company to cofound The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit focused on helping donors and nonprofit leaders to develop and execute strategies to accelerate social change. In Give Smart, Tierney pools his hands-on knowledge with Duke professor Joel L. Fleishman’s expertise to create a much-needed primer for philanthropists and the nonprofit organizations they support. Drawing from personal experiences, research spanning twentieth- and twenty-first-century philanthropy, contemporary interviews, and Bridgespan’s extensive field work, Give Smart presents the definitive guide to engaged philanthropy.


Praise for Give Smart
"This is a book that, though concise and very accessibly written, embraces the nuance and complexity of philanthropy, seeking to explain it—and doing so very well—rather than to deny it. It is an absolute must-read for people involved in giving away large sums…. Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman are particularly eloquent—and their message especially important for new major donors—when it comes to how to work effectively with grantees. Unlike others writing about philanthropy who have caricatured staffs of charities as Birkenstock-wearing idealists lacking in management skills, Mr. Tierney and Mr. Fleishman urge philanthropists to treat those on the front lines with the respect they deserve…. This book is among the very best I have seen in an emerging genre of donor-education literature." —Phil Buchanen, Chronicle of Philanthropy
"An interesting and well-considered guide to go to before you give." —Publishers Weekly
"[Give Smart] teems with practical advice for those seeking to find an effective way to give money to stimulate and accelerate societal improvement…. The case studies of well-known philanthropists, from Andrew Carnegie to Michael J. Fox, make for compelling and inspirational reading." —Library Journal
"Whatever your means, Give Smart provides an interesting discussion to help you evaluate your own charitable contributions." —Associated Press
"A superb guide for donors who want to be as smart in their giving as they have been in business." —Adam Meyerson,
"Credible books that encourage potential donors to step out of their external and internal pressure cookers, and into serious thinking, are indeed important and useful. Tierney and Fleishman have written such a book… Powerful. Tierney and Fleishman speak directly and clearly to an implied audience of very wealth donors, with both respect and candor." —Melissa Berman, Stanford Social Innovation Review
"A very readable, motivating introductory guide to engaged giving…. With its storytelling approach this will be a book that many donors will read." —Alliance Magazine
"Give Smart is a great gift to the world. By asking questions—the right questions—Tierney and Fleishman guide, advise, challenge, and, as with all great teachers, push us to find our own best answers. If you want your philanthropy to be useful—changing lives, solving intractable problems, making society work better—then engage deeply with this book!" —Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors
"One of the most exciting and important parts of my job as a philanthropist is learning. Over the years, Bill and I have learned so much from the authors of this book, and we are thrilled to see that wisdom collected in Give Smart so that everybody can benefit from it the way we have." —Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
"Having been on 'both sides of the check,' first working in philanthropy and now as a recipient of philanthropic dollars, I found Give Smart a must read. The relationship between grant makers and nonprofit organizations is a delicate dance, one that—when done well—can achieve incredible social good. Not only does this book provide a practical guide for those who want to achieve high impact philanthropy, it also helps nonprofits understand the aspirations and expectations of the donor. Don't begin, or continue, your philanthropy without reading it." —Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE and former Director of HIV programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
"Giving away money is easy, but making a real difference is hard work. Give Smart addresses these challenges head-on and provides a strong analytic framework and practical advice for effective philanthropy—replete with compelling examples. Written by two leaders in the field, this is a must-read for the new philanthropist and a valuable resource for old hands as well." —Paul Brest, president, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and co-author of Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy
"Give Smart is must reading for all philanthropists, large or small. It's written by two people with long experience, and it will make your gifts go farther." —John C. Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs and former deputy secretary of state
"As Pam and I continue to learn through our own giving, the challenges in creating positive social impact are many and complex. Give Smart provides thoughtful guidance on how to build an effective and personal approach to philanthropy, illustrated through real-world examples, proven methodologies, and insightful commentary. We highly recommend Give Smart to anyone who wants to make a difference, whether in their local community or around the world." —Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman, eBay; founding partner, Omidyar Network

For Eleanor and Ralph Tierney,
who shaped my values and beliefs
while teaching me always to do my share—
and then some.
To my parents, A. M. and Ruth Fleishman.
My memory of their example will always inspire me
to strive to be a blessing for others.

We believe that you can achieve significantly greater results with the money and time you give away—if you put your mind where your heart inclines you, if you confront the right questions, and if you are willing to try. In those three "ifs" lies the key to unlocking philanthropy's full potential—for donors and for foundations.
We believe that all philanthropy is deeply personal and highly circumstantial. There are no simple steps, fancy frameworks, or trusted tools upon which you can always rely. We believe that by asking the right questions—at the right time and in the right way—you will be far more likely to achieve the change you want to bring about in the world. You will also have a lot more fun, and live a richer and more meaningful life.
These beliefs led us to create this book. With it, our primary goal is to serve those who serve society, and to do so in a manner that will help them achieve genuinely better results for their communities, their countries, and our world. Whom do we have in mind? First, everyone engaged in the work of giving: individual donors and their families, foundation executives, philanthropic advisors, trustees, and decision makers of every sort who are motivated to Give Smart—to use their own philanthropic resources or those they steward to generate the best possible results. We expect this book will also prove useful for people on the receiving end of philanthropic giving: the leaders of the mission-driven organizations that constitute the world of philanthropy's "grantees."
The ideas presented in these pages are the product of our personal and institutional experiences. They bridge theory and practice, business and academia, grant making and grant receiving. In a very real sense, this book is the endpoint to a journey we embarked upon from quite different starting points. One of us, Tom, began in the business world, where he pursued a career in management consulting that culminated in his becoming worldwide managing director of Bain & Company; he served on the boards of many nonprofits along the way. And one of us, Joel, began in academia, where he produced new knowledge about foundations and their charitable giving; he ultimately served as founder and faculty chair of the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.
Our separate journeys converged about fifteen years ago, when Joel was president of the Atlantic Philanthropies' U.S. Program Staff. Joel adamantly encouraged Tom to pursue his dream of creating a nonprofit professional services organization that could help social sector organizations improve their performance, much as Bain & Company had helped (and continues to help) its corporate clients succeed. That encouragement, and Atlantic Philanthropies' cornerstone funding, gave birth to The Bridgespan Group, an independent nonprofit that spun out of its incubation at Bain & Company in 2000. It has since engaged in an array of initiatives aimed at helping individuals and organizations achieve breakthrough results on society's behalf.
One of the ways in which Bridgespan pursues its mission is by working with hundreds of nonprofits—in fields ranging from education to environment to community development—assisting service providers, advocacy organizations, and intermediaries. At the same time, Bridgespan also works closely with philanthropists and foundations, thus bridging the gap between those who give and those who receive. The insights sparked by this dual perspective have informed and shaped Tom's thinking. This book builds on his essay "Toward Higher-Impact Philanthropy," published in 2006 in Taking Philanthropy Seriously.1
Meanwhile, Joel has pursued his own passion: working to make philanthropists, and especially foundations, more effective in their charitable giving. His efforts culminated in 2007 with the publication of The Foundation: A Great American Secret and an accompanying casebook, which together comprise a record of how philanthropy has been practiced in the United States since the early years of the twentieth century.
As each of us was pursuing his own path, we continued to talk and compare notes. Gradually, we realized that our experiences were highly complementary: Joel focusing on the foundations that funded grantees' proposals and Bridgespan serving many of those same grantees, as well as an everbroader array of individual philanthropists. Our thinking, too, was highly compatible, and we began discussing a book that might bring our experience and views together in one compact volume.
You hold the result in your hands.
Readers will quickly discover that this book has two central biases: a bias toward content essential for decision making and a bias toward the pragmatic—toward ideas that have proven useful in the real world. We work with and admire academics, consultants, policy makers, and students of the social sector, but this book is aimed explicitly at people who have the awesome responsibility of giving money away and not having it anymore while, at the same time, achieving the best possible results. This isn't easy, and those people deserve the best possible thinking.
Every book can be improved. Our hope is that you will not only find our work useful but also add your ideas and views. Philanthropy, once the most stately of endeavors, has evolved into a dynamic enterprise, and new insights are constantly emerging from across the social sector and around the globe. We are eager to hear how your version of philanthropy is evolving. To that end, please join us in updating and adding to these ideas through the Bridgespan Web site ( so that the journey can continue and broaden.
Thomas J. Tierney
Chairman, The Bridgespan Group
Joel Fleishman
Professor of Law and Public Policy, Duke University

I'm giving away money—some would say lots of money. And yet it pales in comparison to the needs I see all around me: urban slums and rural poverty, children in failing schools and children without access to any schooling whatsoever, deforestation and unclean water, crippling diseases of many kinds. The needs are immense, at home and abroad. My aspirations are so much greater than my resources that at times it feels as though I'm trying to hold back the tide. I want my giving to do the most it can . . . but how?
WE HAVE HEARD THESE SENTIMENTS FROM every corner of the philanthropic universe, across America and around the world. They are echoed by experienced donors giving away hundreds of millions a year and rookies with newly established donor-advised funds; by families engaged in private foundations, as well as by their independent trustees and advisors; by all manner of foundation decision makers, from chief executives to program officers. The speakers' roles and circumstances vary widely, but they share the aspiration to get the most from their philanthropy— and a nagging concern that they could indeed accomplish more.
The concern is warranted. Every donor wants his or her money to make a difference, and nobody wants to see hard-earned wealth (their own or a benefactor's) go to waste. Yet philanthropy's natural state is underperformance. The generosity that causes people to use their wealth on others' behalf is a wonderful expression of humanity at its best, and it can bring enormous joy into a donor's life. But generosity alone is rarely sufficient if you aspire to leave a legacy of exceptional results. Outstanding philanthropy is distinguished by what it achieves as well as by the act of charity itself. It requires you to complement your heartfelt generosity with a disciplined consideration of what you hope to accomplish: the results that will define success, what it will take to achieve them, and how those results will get better over time.
This rigorous approach to how you practice philanthropy is what we mean when we say, "Give smart." It may sound unexceptional. In practice, it is much less straightforward—and far more valuable—than it may first appear.


Giving money away is easy. If you can sign your name at the bottom of a check, or approve the slate of grants at a family foundation board meeting, or accept proposals from aspiring grantees, you can give money away. Giving it away smartly, so that it not only gets results but also gets more and better results over time, is hard. In addition to the sheer difficulty of the issues many philanthropists choose to tackle, you also have to reckon with some "terrible truths" that are rooted in the realities of how the social sector works: All philanthropy is personal. Results can confound. Excellence is self-imposed.
All philanthropy is personal. In the United States alone, there are more than one million nonprofit organizations engaged in every sort of activity, from promoting the arts to organizing zoological expeditions. This diverse and dynamic landscape is the product of the freedom enjoyed by individuals and foundations to support whatever causes they care most about. This same freedom also explains why, quite understandably, not all philanthropic giving is motivated purely or even primarily by the desire to achieve results.
All philanthropy is personal and, as donors, we make gifts for many different reasons: responsibilities to our communities or colleagues ("doing my share"), personal relationships ("can't say no"), giving back, returning a favor, fulfilling our volunteer commitments ("we need 100 percent participation from the board"). Such gifts may be relatively small, given our circumstances, or they may be substantial, as evidenced by the large number of six-, seven-, and even eight-figure gifts given to educational, medical, and cultural institutions each year. Either way, the motivation behind the gift is primarily personal. Results matter, of course, but results are not the driving force.
When institutions replace individuals as the source of funds, philanthropy's personal taproots do not disappear, even if they are seldom discussed publicly. In family-run foundations, trustees naturally feel a certain sense of ownership of the institution's assets, and their interests and worldviews are likely to influence the focus and nature of its grants. Professionally staffed foundations typically have well-defined institutional priorities and processes, yet their program managers often have considerable discretionary latitude in proposing grants, as do the executive directors who ultimately decide what will go before the board. Since many of these individuals are recruited on the basis of their expertise and experience, institutional confidence in their judgment is not at all surprising. But neither should it be surprising that many day-to-day decisions bear their personal stamp.
Results can confound. In the complex world of giving money away, tangible philanthropy—funding the construction of a new marine biology laboratory for instance, or buying up conservation land—is about as straightforward as it gets. As donors, we can take pride in our contributions without worrying that we may not have gotten quite what we paid for. In contrast, the results of other philanthropic initiatives—funding an after-school tutoring program, sponsoring research on global warming, supporting a local neighborhood's revitalization—can be defiantly difficult to pin down. We bet that such gifts and grants will "make a difference." But unlike a construction site, we cannot easily see the work in progress, nor can we be certain that whatever results we do see are directly attributable to our efforts.
In addition, feedback on the results of our philanthropic efforts can be ambiguous, even suspect. When you are in the business of giving away money, people have a tendency to tell you what they think you want to hear. Surrounded by smiling faces and awash in reassuring rhetoric, it's natural for even the most objective and disciplined donors to think they are really achieving outstanding results. Personal incentives are surreptitiously aligned: givers want to feel good about their contributions; current and potential recipients of those funds need to be liked if they hope to secure future funding. Without hard facts to help, even the most well-intentioned individuals can easily be overwhelmed.
Excellence is self-imposed. This is the last and most terrible truth of all: philanthropy has no built-in systemic forces to motivate continuous improvement. The absence of external accountability is what gives philanthropy its freedom to experiment, take risks, and pursue long-term initiatives on society's behalf. At the same time, it also means that if you do not demand excellence of yourself no one else will require it of you.
Unlike business leaders, philanthropists have no market dynamics with which to contend. There are no competitors fighting to take market share away from them, no customers who will take their money elsewhere if they fail to deliver, no shareholders poised to dump their stock. Nor do they need to answer to the public, as politicians ultimately must. Quite the contrary: grant making is often accomplished through foundations established in perpetuity, insulated (and isolated) from any external pressure other than being required to abide by regulatory and tax laws.
In this Galapagos Island–like world, where there are no natural predators, philanthropy is inclined to persist, but not to excel. Therefore, whether you are a donor, a trustee, or a foundation officer, if you want to narrow the gap between your aspirations and the results your giving achieves, you must be willing to set your own standard of excellence and hold yourself accountable for meeting it.
This is no small challenge. Self-imposed accountability is not a natural act. It requires extraordinary determination and discipline to pursue outstanding results year after year, when nothing in the surrounding environment requires you to do so. It is especially unnatural when you are tackling complicated issues, where there are no proven strategies and results are difficult to assess. Helping to change the life of a child born into poverty or forestall the effects of global warming is fundamentally harder than making the proverbial widget. And yet, examples of philanthropic excellence most certainly exist. As an illustration, consider the stellar results of the partnership between the Fisher family and the Knowledge Is Power Program Foundation, better known as KIPP.


In 1969, Doris and Don Fisher opened the first Gap clothing store in San Francisco. Frustrated by never being able to find pants that fit Don properly, they went to the root of the problem and began selling their own apparel. Thus, with one pair of pants, a retail sensation was born, and Gap (named by Doris) has since grown to 3,100 stores around the world.
When Don Fisher stepped down as CEO of Gap in 1995, he and Doris began looking for ways to increase their involvement in philanthropy. Don had a long-standing commitment to helping children, honed by more than thirty years of service on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco. He was becoming increasingly concerned, as was Doris, about what was happening (or not) in the public schools of the city where he'd grown up. "The interest Doris and I have in improving public education comes from our worry that the gulf is growing, not as much between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' anymore, but between the 'knows' and the 'know-nots,'" Don reflected.1
To the Fishers, public charter schools, which offered greater freedom over hiring, budgets, and leadership, seemed to offer the best opportunity to tackle the huge problems facing education. They had another advantage as well: successful efforts could be copied around the country. Rather than support dozens of separate, individual charter schools, the Fishers sought a program where they could use their formidable marketing skills and business experience to help it grow. "I want to do something that's scalable," Don commented, "where we can touch a lot of kids."2
Having clarified what they hoped to achieve, Don and Doris next sought advice. They were personally invested and interested in education, but they also knew they had a lot to learn. To that end, they hired Scott Hamilton, then the Massachusetts associate commissioner of education for charter schools, to help them identify high-potential organizations. After a full year of searching and learning, they narrowed their focus to the Knowledge Is Power Program.
At the time, KIPP was just two middle schools in Houston and New York City, but it fit the Fishers' criteria on every dimension. It had a strong, results-oriented approach. Expectations for students were high: the organization had a compelling focus on making college the goal for all students. And the visionary cofounders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, had solid ideas about how to spread the KIPP approach to other cities.
Beyond these many qualifications, however, KIPP had something equally important. It inspired Doris and Don Fisher, because it resonated with their own deeply held values and beliefs, in particular, the belief that race or income shouldn't limit a child's chance to be educated.
Having invested the time to find the right organization, the Fishers were prepared to play a significant role. They committed $15 million over three years to start the KIPP Foundation, designed to help KIPP begin growing toward national scale. In addition, through their frequent communication with KIPP's leaders, they began to realize that more would be needed to make a real difference in the students' lives—first and foremost the right teachers and principals. So when the Fishers learned that, like Feinberg and Levin, two-thirds of the KIPP principals were alumni of Teach for America (TFA), they increased their commitment to help that organization grow as well. Today, 28 percent of KIPP teachers are TFA teachers or alumni. The Fishers also worked with KIPP to launch and fund the Fisher Fellowship, a yearlong leadership-development program with intensive coursework, residencies, and coaching, designed to prepare individuals to open and lead high-performing KIPP schools. Through programs like this, KIPP has developed and retained its best faculty; 73 percent of KIPP school leaders began as KIPP teachers.
Relentlessly seeking results, the Fishers and KIPP strove to learn what was working and what wasn't through transparent sharing of real results. If bad news came, they wanted it unvarnished. KIPP's public, annual report card, which publishes the results of every KIPP school, was Don Fisher's idea.
The results speak for themselves. Since the KIPP Foundation was established in 2000, KIPP has grown to ninety-nine schools in twenty states plus Washington, DC, teaching more than 26,000 students. Moreover, KIPP is nationally recognized as the gold standard in charter education. Of the students who complete eighth grade with KIPP, 95 percent graduate from high school, versus the national average of fewer than 70 percent.3 Some 88 percent of KIPP eighthgrade completers have gone on to college,4 far beyond the national average. KIPP is also continuing its ambitious growth, planning to double the number of students served by 2015.5
Today, the Fisher family is KIPP's largest national partner,6


On Sale
Mar 29, 2011
Page Count
272 pages

Thomas J. Tierney

About the Author

Thomas J. Tierney is the cofounder and chairman of The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisor to the nonprofit sector and its donors.

Joel L. Fleishman is professor of law and public policy at Duke University and author of The Foundation.

Learn more about this author

Joel L. Fleishman

About the Author

Joel L. Fleishman is a professor of law and public policy; director of the Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Center for Ethics, Public Policy and the Professions; and director of the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University. From 1993 to 2001, Fleishman took a part-time leave from Duke University to serve as president of the Atlantic Philanthropic Service Company, the U.S. Program Staff of Atlantic Philanthropies. Fleishman also serves as a director of Ralph Lauren Corporation.

Learn more about this author