Finding Your Focus in Philanthropy

What challenges will you tackle, and what do you want to achieve? This guide, part of the Philanthropy Roadmap series, will help you narrow your focus to maximize your impact.


Many people come to philanthropy with their focus fully formed. They know what issues they want to take on, what they hope to achieve, and where they want their giving directed. For others, the process of choosing how to allocate their resources can be daunting—especially given the enormous range of opportunities.

Even experienced donors sometimes reach a juncture where they question if what they’ve been supporting really reflects their deepest convictions or simply their habits. Many funding appeals seek support on the basis of urgency. But what is the most urgent issue? There’s obviously no objective answer to that question. In our experience, donors make the most sustained and successful contributions when the issues they focus on connect directly to their motivations and convictions. It’s also helpful, we find, to recognize that issues don’t exist in isolation, and that great results in one area can support change in other dimensions. The real question is where you want to enter the circle:


There are many issues in the world, and many different ideas about which is the most important and compelling. The reality is that all these issues are connected, each driving the others.

Framing the Issues

Framing the Issues

One way to start the selection process is to explore how you frame issues. Just as various motivations create the conviction to become a serious giver, different lenses on the world help us focus and sort what we see around us.

Here are a few of those frames:

Big Challenges

Many people start their analysis of issues at a very high level, with very big subject areas or abstract problems, and examine which they are most impelled to focus on. Examples, like those shown in the circular diagram on page 3, include poverty, disease, education, and climate change, to name but a few. Often, donors looking at big challenges will (unless their resources are truly astonishing) choose a broad area and then look to drill down to more specific dimensions for the particular challenge they want to address. But they like to start at the high level.

Specific Challenges

For some, the big issues are too large a place to start. Their inclination is to focus on something far more concrete and specific, which may later develop into a broader program. Examples of starting with a more focused lens include challenges as varied as these: Parkinson’s disease, early childhood education and care, preserving open space or training home health aides to serve low-income immigrants.


Many donors will concentrate on the types of people whom they wish to support. Children, women, the elderly, youth, artists, refugees, innovators—there are myriad possibilities. A donor may choose to help people related to a family history or experience or through having learned more about a community through work, travel or affinity.


These funders choose to focus on certain sites—driven often by heritage or experience, but not always—and may fund many “subject” areas within that geography. How a donor defines that geography can vary greatly—from a continent or region to a village or even a neighborhood.


Funders who view the world through the “institution building” lens seek to achieve their philanthropic goals by supporting certain kinds of organizations. They often focus on a particular type of organization and the role it plays in the world. Some examples: think tanks, policy and advocacy organizations, museums, ballets, orchestras, charter schools and community colleges. The potential list is large but often a donor will intuitively know they wish to narrow the range by the other components discussed such as geography or people served.

One of the chief obstacles which the philanthropist meets in his efforts to do real and permanent good in this world is the practice of indiscriminate giving. - Andrew Carnegie

Narrowing Your Focus

Narrowing Your Focus

Once you’ve identified the area or areas of interest for your philanthropy, you’ll probably want to narrow your focus.

Broad fields like education and the environment are convenient categories, but obviously too big for any donor to tackle. You’ll want to look at the components of those fields— early learning; primary and secondary school; higher education. Even within those areas you’ll probably need to move to a more specific focus—perhaps by topic within the area (teacher training for primary/secondary school), by region, or by type of educational institution.

It’s worth remembering here that for many significant donors, the question is not which issue area to focus on, but what combination of issue areas to support. Their interests may span more than one topic. Also, there may be more than one philanthropic decision-maker—a couple, a set of siblings, a parent with adult children, even grandparents with adult children and teenage grandchildren. Multiple decision-makers often create multiple issue areas and that means a team effort is required to find a clear philanthropic focus. Time must be set aside for family members to listen and talk to one another as they seek a mutually agreeable approach.

This decision-making stage is best approached through a strategic planning process based on the Roadmap (see our guide “Your Philanthropy Roadmap”) or some other planning tool. This approach allows each participant to explore and express his or her motivations, and choice of issue areas. Once those ideas are on the table, many family members find themselves impressed and inspired by the views of others. Even so, it’s important to allocate enough philanthropic resources so the programs are not too diluted. Often difficult decisions about priorities and proportions will need to be made. Where the dominant family member has made a firm decision on how philanthropic resources will be used, it may be best to abandon the notion of family decision-making and recognize that other family members will simply not be participating in the philanthropy. (For more on this topic, see our guide “Talking to Your Family about Philanthropy.”)

All too often, philanthropy is funding the problem. This isn’t to say that philanthropy is making things worse (although some would make that case). It means that too many of us are content to direct money in response to problems, with little thought about how that money might create a solution. In fact, it’s common to hear people say sincerely that their philanthropy “funds health care and poverty in my community.” Presumably, they want to see more of the first and less of the second. Funding the solution, on the other hand, means not only having a clear focus on a challenge of appropriate size, but having a clear vision of what change you want to achieve. Whether you call it a goal, an outcome or a solution, it’s important to define what end-result you seek. And you’ll need a clear-eyed view of the milestones along the way that indicate progress. (For more on this topic, see our guide “Assessing Impact.”)

Moving Forward

Moving Forward

Andrew Carnegie, along with John D. Rockefeller, was one of the archetypal philanthropists of the 20th century. When he created the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911, he did it with a clear focus for his giving. One of his “big challenges” was education: he sought to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” He was also clear on the outcomes he wanted —seeking to create “ladders on which the aspiring can rise.” He is remembered today, in part, for his focus on building institutions that provided such “ladders” —for example, funding 2,509 libraries across the world, including 1,679 in United States.

Carnegie’s example shows how finding one’s focus can enhance the effectiveness of giving and set the standard for ongoing philanthropy. Knowing the challenge you want to tackle and the change you want to help create can determine not only your current giving strategy but the ways your philanthropy will create its legacy for future generations.