Giving in Challenging Times

This brief guide is designed to serve both emerging and established donors looking at important questions and issues faced when giving in difficult political, social or financial times.


We live a time of increasing social and economic challenges. In 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis, RPA published the first version of our Giving in Challenging Times guide. We sought to help philanthropists chart a course forward in those uncertain circumstances. Today, as we survey current challenges and those that lie ahead, we see a broad array of social, financial and environmental crises that are poised to test our sense of shared values and societal framework. This guide is created to provide you with updated and more detailed insights on giving thoughtfully in these challenging times.

Representing a touch point for these developments, the 2016 United States Presidential election revealed a divided country. Though many of us did not realize just how fragmented we are, seeds of discontent have been growing for many years, spurred by economic anxiety and frustration with government. In a mid-2016 Gallup poll, Americans expressed waning trust in institutions across the board: “Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives: the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are supposed to protect Americans’ earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”

The unraveling of our social compact doesn’t end at American borders; it extends to countries around the world. Seemingly endless civil war in Syria has confounded efforts to save civilians and broker peace. Refugee migration and issues of diaspora, in response to violence and economic destitution, uproot communities and raise questions of inclusion and human responsibility. The rise of populism globally, which often occurs in response to increasing immigration, prompts divisions in long-held alliances, as in the Brexit vote in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union or increased nationalism in Germany. Political turmoil—from South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye to unrest in Brazil and Venezuela—seems omnipresent, prompting questions about the very meaning of citizenship. Natural disasters wield massive destruction and challenge us to define where our duty to others begins and ends in times of desperation. Though the specific effects of these issues will surely change, their underlying causes will remain relevant—and pressing —in the long term. What is the role that philanthropy can play in society, in relation to private citizens and government? How do we address these deep-seated issues in light of the widespread skepticism about the institutions that are tasked with providing solutions?

Addressing these problems requires a great deal of thoughtfulness, tenacity, and commitment; even the most seasoned philanthropists need to pause, reflect, and ensure that their giving strategies reflect the seismic shifts around the world. This requires a broad awareness of big-picture issues, as well as a willingness to humbly seek out the interconnectedness of global challenges. No matter your issue, no matter your method—be it through public-private partnerships, impact investing, coalitions, collaboration or more traditional philanthropy models—there are opportunities to realign your resources with what is needed in today’s environment. In this guide, we present a series of considerations and strategies for thoughtful, effective giving in these challenging times.

“In prosperity, caution; in adversity, patience.”
- Dutch proverb

Core Principles

Core Principles

We quoted the saying above in the first version of this guide. The advice is still relevant, in both life and philanthropy: when the going gets tough, one could say, the tough get patient. It’s crucial to take your time to carefully examine your philanthropy in times of tumult, making sure that your actions are appropriate for the environment in which you’ll work.

There are three core principles to keep in mind when adapting philanthropy to current challenges: review, recalibrate, and recommit. Review asks you to consider whether the values that inform your giving are still appropriate and inspiring. Recalibrate calls for you to assess whether, after a fresh look at your motivations, your goals and giving vehicles need to change. Recommit requires that you look at whether and how you will adjust your giving strategy so that you’ll be better positioned to support the causes you care about over the long term.

Considered carefully, this framework can help you take stock of where you are, make potential adjustments that reflect how the world is shifting, and align your resources to fully address the issues that mean the most to you. For longtime givers, this process can help ensure that your strategy and tactics are best suited for the change you wish to create in this unique moment: are your programs still relevant and impactful? New donors, too, can benefit: if you’ve given generously, but without a unified approach, you’ll be guided to take into account the current state of your core issues of concern—and your larger philanthropic values.

Step 1: Review

Step 1: Review

When the world around you is in turmoil, there is an opportunity to consider your strategy in a new light. Initially, it may seem hard to focus—where to begin, when there is so much to be done? We’ve broken down the process into five guiding strategies to help you move forward on the right path, based on your values.

Guiding Strategies

Keep your commitments.

We generally suggest that you stick with the issues and regions to which you’ve been committed, as your knowledge and experience in them will benefit your efforts in times of upheaval. How can you explore these issues further from your new vantage point? How can you provide support in new ways? For newer donors who may have given without a unified focus, it may be helpful to look back on your philanthropy and highlight the projects that have meant the most to you. Where have you built expertise? How can that history benefit those who need your help now?

As you consider your commitments, you’ll also find a good opportunity to contemplate or review your motivations for giving. What values inform your philanthropy? Why do your chosen causes resonate with you? And, as you explore the personal meaning they provide, how might you connect more deeply to that meaning through the organizations you support?

Identify and prioritize issues, grantees, and populations with the greatest need.

Among the causes you care about, what is most at risk as the world shifts? As you survey your giving, you may see that one or a few key issues seem especially vulnerable in the current context. Likewise, you may want to identify specific grantees who have a particularly strong need for support—perhaps because they are engaged in a powerful campaign that could leverage your giving in a unique way, or perhaps because they have lost a key piece of government funding. Keep in mind that smaller nonprofits are almost always more vulnerable. Finally, think about the end beneficiaries of your philanthropy. How are things changing for them? Does any one group of people in need reveal itself as a crucial part of the overall change you seek? If so, you might consider building or expanding support for them into your long-term strategy.

Identify which grantees are best positioned to move your agenda forward.

As we’ve discussed, broad changes in society represent challenges that require long-term, big-picture thinking. In addition to the grantees who may be most at risk, consider prioritizing those who have proven to be tenacious and systems-oriented. These partnerships may represent the best opportunity for tackling the underlying causes of the problems you most wish to address.

Spend time learning from and with other funders.

None of us are alone in trying to make sense of the turmoil we may see in our communities and countries. Don’t forget to tap into the powerful network of philanthropists around you! Attending convenings and conferences, seeking advice from those with similar areas of interest, and simply researching how other foundations or givers are responding to the challenges of a specific issue area can all be helpful ways to make sure that your work is informed by the work of your peers. The SDG Philanthropy Platform, described earlier in this guide, is a good example of an effort to educate and connect like-minded funders around a shared vision.

Think about your strategy conceptually.

An internal audit can reveal ways in which you can improve your strategy and processes. If you’re working as a foundation or within a philanthropic family, how can you be more accountable to your grantees and effective in your work? Looking further afield, how can you join efforts with others in the same space for systems-level change?

Step 2: Recalibrate

Step 2: Recalibrate

If, after the review process, you decide that your current style of giving is no longer the right fit for these times, cast a fresh eye on other ways to achieve your goals. This could mean stepping out of your comfort zone in order to support new grantees, forge new partnerships or take an entirely different approach to giving. Creative approaches to philanthropy abound, from the aforementioned rise of impact investing to the focus on leadership as a needed catalyst for change, giving donors more tools than ever before to achieve their desired impact.

The question of time horizon offers another opportunity for recalibration. As you tease out priorities for grantees and issues moving forward, how might you adjust your spending to take the time frame associated with your efforts into account? For example, some donors who are passionate about fighting climate change see the present moment as a now-or-never chance to make a difference, spending more in the short term in the hopes of a future payoff. As a contrast, some donors who work in poverty alleviation see a need to take a long-term view, seeing their chosen issue as one that requires constant infusions of capital over decades. The Olin Foundation, featured in a case study later in this Guide, chose to spend down its assets entirely in pursuit of conservative legal scholarship for a particular generation of young lawyers, shaping a future community of like-minded judges and policy makers at a key moment. This focus increased its impact, as journalist John J. Miller notes: “The decision to spend itself out of existence may seem bizarre…yet it magnified the Olin Foundation’s influence. Although it never had much more than $100 million in assets, its refusal to hoard its endowment allowed it to spend at the rate of a much larger foundation.” (6)

Note: for further exploration of time horizon considerations further, please see our Setting a Time Horizon guide.

Guiding Strategies

Consider new forms of giving.

If your philanthropy has mostly consisted of traditional grantmaking, challenging times present an invitation to think creatively about other modes of support.

For example, perhaps the issues you care about are pushed forward not only by nonprofits, but also through businesses with strong commitments to a social mission. This can invite you to explore impact investing, which allows philanthropists to generate social impact and deliver a financial return at the same time. Impact investing includes a range of vehicles along a wide range of complexity. Commonly, foundations explore mission-related investments (MRIs), which are market-rate investments made as part of an endowment that create positive social impact; and program-related investments (PRIs), which are below-market-rate investments made to further specific programmatic objectives. Impact investing offers donors a way to align their investments with their grantmaking; as with any new philanthropic field, it is constantly evolving. We recommend that new practitioners seek expert advice as they begin.

Note: for further exploration of impact investing, please see our first guide Impact Investing: An Introduction.

Give more flexibly; remove restrictions from your grantees to help them act more responsively.

In challenging times, uncertainty may make it harder for your grantees to request and receive money earmarked for specific purposes. Organizations that protect populations at risk for political or environmental upheaval, for example, may need funds for an unforeseen emergency. You may find an opportunity to provide a trusted organization with unrestricted funds by granting general operating support, knowing that its leadership will use your support as effectively as possible. By giving in this way, you may literally be keeping the lights on during a crisis, or you may be helping with an important initiative as it grows. In any case, flexible funds help grantees adapt to unpredictability, ensuring that their work will continue even as things change. If you’ve already made a grant for a particular purpose, you can contractually release your grantee organization from those restrictions in order to help it stay nimble and responsive.

Explore partnership and collaboration opportunities.

By banding together with other philanthropists to address joint concerns, you can help each other become more knowledgeable and effective. A partnership opportunity could be as simple as knowledge sharing over an informal lunch; on the more complex end of the spectrum, it could take the form of a strategic funding engagement. In many cases, working together enhances both credibility and impact.

Note: for further exploration of the benefits of collaboration, please see our Collaborative Giving guide. 

Consider whether your philanthropy’s beneficiaries now have different needs and priorities.

As you re-assess your giving, avoid assumptions when you can. Your grantees and partners may be experiencing the changing world in an unexpected way. Look for ways to hear their voices directly. You can find out firsthand whether demand for their services has increased, learn more about what kind of support would be most useful (it may go beyond funding), and discover an array of insights by opening up a conversation.

Consider systems-oriented philanthropy.

When the underlying structures of society are fractured, it’s best to avoid band-aid solutions and focus on root causes and patterns. Where can you think more broadly? How can you learn more about the legal, political, social and economic systems that affect your work?

Step 3: Recommit

Step 3: Recommit

Once you’ve reviewed your past work and aligned your motivations with the urgency of the present moment, it’s time to consider how, exactly, your strategy for the future will contribute to long-term change. What are you most committed to achieving? How can you engage your assets beyond funding? Keep in mind that while it may seem that the current challenges occurred overnight, they actually took many years to develop, and will require time and patience to be addressed in a sustainable way. Newer givers may be creating a strategy, rather than adjusting or re-envisioning one, but the same approach can apply.

Guiding Strategies

Try to keep the long term in mind, looking beyond the current news cycle.  

Present challenges were created over many years, and will need many years to address. This challenging moment in time will pass, but its effects may last for decades. How can you strike a balance between staying responsive to current needs, but also working with a long view in mind?

Consider where, in the process of social change, you want to position yourself.

Remember that changes in the social compact generally go through three phases: awareness, agreement, and action. Think about which phase represents where you want to put your resources to work. Will you launch an attention-grabbing public awareness campaign about a neglected, but important, issue? Will you organize convenings that bring unlikely players in a difficult field together? Will you push for policy change? Each part of the process requires a great deal of focus, relationship building, and skilled coordination of key partners.

Engage your assets beyond grantmaking where possible.

Social and reputational capital, communication channels, networks, know-how, and investments are all complementary tools for positive change. Efforts like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or the campaign for gay marriage, are great examples of initiatives that leveraged many of these factors. As you think through your capacity for impact, where can you draw on your network to help? How can your knowledge work for your grantees? How can you increase public awareness with the channels you can access?

Moving Forward

Moving Forward

As we in the philanthropic community think through what we can do to foster peace and progress in these challenging times, we hope that the opportunity to pause and reflect reveals an even stronger commitment to the values we share. And we at RPA hope that the process of reviewing, recalibrating, and recommitting is helpful to you as you create a path forward.

As philanthropists, we are called to put ourselves, our resources, and our networks to the best use. We recognize that our best use may change with time and circumstance, particularly during periods of difficulty. Anything we can do to make connections, learn from others and focus broadly on how private resources create public benefit will help us mend what has been broken.

Looking into an uncertain future, it’s comforting to know that one thing remains constant: the unwavering commitment of our grantees and partners on the ground. We remain indebted to those nonprofits and communities; they make it possible for us to hold steadfast to our goal of creating thoughtful, effective philanthropy, through whatever challenges may lie ahead.