Finding your focus

Sharpen your strategies and become more impactful with this Circle round-up of resources aimed at helping you find your philanthropic focus

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This curated page is designed for people starting out on their giving journey, as well as for those who are already making donations but who may want to sharpen their strategies and become more impactful. There are links to downloadable checklists for you to use and share with members of your family and your team.

Whether you have just come into some money thanks to inheritance or an IPO, or you are already making regular donations but wish to increase your impact, it is useful to take a step back and ask yourself some questions.

What kind of philanthropist are you? What values drive your giving? What do you want to achieve with your philanthropy?

There is no single rule book for effective philanthropy but there are plenty of useful resources that can help you think more deeply about how to approach your philanthropy and how to sharpen your impact. This guide lists some of those resources and includes various downloadable checklists and toolkits, all of which we have translated into Arabic.

Some of the questions will seem easy and obvious, others may be more thought-provoking; they are shared here as a jumping off point to discuss with family members and staff, and perhaps even professional advisors.

We will be updating this page as new resources become available, so do keep checking back from time to time to see what's been added.

Questions to ask before you begin

You aspire to make a real and lasting difference in the world, and so you have decided to get more involved in philanthropy. Before you take any action, however, it is important to consider the following questions for getting started.

Have I thought about how my family and others close to me will be involved in my giving? In particular, am I (or are we) clear on whether and how I/we will make decisions? 
If you answered “no” to either of these questions, take some time to think through the appropriate roles for those around you. You may do this alone, or with someone you trust deeply.

Have I determined how much of my time I’m willing to commit to this process? 
Your initial answer to this question doesn’t have to be set in stone, but having a general sense—whether this will be a few hours a week or a full-time job for you—will help you set reasonable expectations for what you’ll be able to accomplish. (Bear in mind, it’s not unusual to wind up surprised by just how much time you will spend once the process is underway.)

Have I settled on one or more legal structures through which to conduct my giving?
What giving instruments will you employ—for example, a private foundation, a donor-advised fund (DAF), or some combination of both—early on? There could be tax and other legal implications regardless of your choice, so working with a lawyer or financial advisor is your best bet here. If you’re not familiar with your options, you will want to learn more before consulting an advisor. You may find that you will reassess the appropriate structure for your giving over time. See Circle's Choosing a giving vehicle guide for more on the different set-up options.

Have I decided whether I will give beyond my lifetime? 
Deciding on when you want to give your money away depends on your personal beliefs and goals. If you believe that the problems you’re addressing will stick around for the foreseeable future, you might choose to invest in a foundation that makes grants in perpetuity. Or, you may choose to let those who come after you deal with the problems of the future while you choose to invest more in those around you today, and, so, set an end date for your philanthropy. As you think through this question, it may be useful to understand these considerations and others, as well as how other donors have approached the decision. For more on so-called sunset clauses, click here.

Source: Finding your philanthropy compass by Bridgespan. 

Motivations,  values, and interests

Personal values, ethics, and life experiences all play an important role in why and how people give. They can inspire and motivate philanthropy, and help donors stay focused when there are setbacks and distractions.

What are your philanthropic values? What is important to you? Empathy or empowerment? Passion or patriotism? Tradition and trustworthiness?

Stanford PACS (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society) has made a useful list of values for philanthropists, new and old, to help stimulate discussion among individuals, families, and groups. 

Circle readers can download the full list here in a document format. You can use it to create a set of flashcards to use as a jumping-off point for this important reflection. There is an Arabic version available here.

What sort of groups and organisations do you want to support? Are you looking to give locally or internationally? How involved do you want to be in how your money is spent? 

With so much going on in the world, it can be hard to know who and what to help with your philanthropy. Stanford PACS has created a helpful list of the mainstay of social causes spanning a range of sectors from education and health, to the arts, civil rights, and the environment.

Priorities can also change over time, so even if you're a seasoned donor, you may find it beneficial to reevaluate the issues you support every few years. There may also be new organisations in your area doing innovative work that would fit well with your impact goals.

You can find the list here or download this version that we've made for Circle members. It is also available in Arabic here.

Stanford has also produced a useful list of reflection questions about values and motivations. You can download and Arabic version via our Arabic pages.

These include:

  • What do you want to sustain or keep the same in the world?
  • What do you want to change in the world?
  • What life experiences have shaped you, the way you look at the world, and your giving?
  • What are some moments or experiences in which you felt like you had some impact on the world?

Also have a look at his Stanford PACS planning toolkit, which is designed to be used in conjunction with the issues and values flash cards referenced above. 

The section above is a derivative of The Stanford PACS Guide to Effective Philanthropy by Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, copyright 2020 Board of Trustees of The Leland Stanford Junior University, used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

Five questions to help you express your values and beliefs

  1. What motivates you to give? (Some possibilities might include your spiritual beliefs, or a desire to help others as you were once helped.)
  2. What values have your family and other role models passed on to you?
  3. What past experiences have shaped your beliefs or your thinking?
  4. What interests or concerns you—for instance, which stories do you read first in the newspaper or online?
  5. Where have you spent your time and money in the past? Why?

Source: Finding your philanthropy Compass, Bridgespan.

For an easy-to-print version of this list with space for your answers click here. 

Real-life examples

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors has published a succinct guide to help donors find their giving focus. It is aimed at early and mid-stage philanthropists and lays out the basic pathway for clarifying a giving approach. It also touches on the importance of "doing no harm" and making sure that you're funding strategically and for impact.

The guide includes profiles of five high profiles philanthropists to inspire and inform.

  • CNN's Ted Turner, who donated one third of his wealth (US$1bn) to create the United Nations Foundation.
  • Next-gen donor Wallis Annenberg who turned a piece of prized real estate into a treasured community asset.
  • Jeff Skoll, the founding president of e-Bay, whose Skoll Foundation has taken social entrepreneurship mainstream.
  • The McGregors, whose fund has provided more than $200m to support homelessness and other social issues over eight decades.
  • Lucile Salter Packard, who in partnership with her husband, David, co-founder of Hewlett Packard, has funded a number of leading paediatric hospitals across the United States.

You can download the complete Finding your Focus in Philanthropy guide here.

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.

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 include poverty, disease, education, and climate change. 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 migrant workers.

People. 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.

Places. 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.

Institutions. Funders who view the world through the “institution building” lens seek to achieve their philanthropic goals by supporting certain kinds of organisations. They often focus on a particular type of organisation and the role it plays in the world. Some examples: think tanks, policy and advocacy organisations, 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.

Source: Finding your focus in philanthropy, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.


Within Bridgespan's Finding your philanthropy compasss guide, there is a useful Giving Checklist that lays out all the tasks and questions to consider tackling when you are getting started or looking to ramp up your philanthropy.

For all possible tasks (from establishing a governance structure and selecting grantees to mentoring performance and communicating your giving), this tool asks you whether you need to do this and/or whether you need to do it yourself. These are important distinctions depending on what your giving structure will be and how much external support you will have.

You can download an interactive PDF version of the checklist here. We recommend doing this after you've worked through the other sections on values, beliefs, and motivations. There is an Arabic version available here.

Further reading

The Shefa Fund, the Gulf region's first pooled fund, fosters collaboration and learning among individual Arab philanthropists with the goal of improving the health and livelihoods of vulnerable children and families in Africa and the Middle East. Hear from Khaled and Olfat Juffali about how they set up their fund, what drives their approach, and how they measure their impact. Read more

Alfanar is the Arab region's first venture philanthropy fund helping to scale social enterprises in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt. Alfanar's founder, the late Tarek Ben Halim, had a clear vision to use private capital to deliver social impact and empower communities to help themselves. Read more

Serial entrepreneur Jim Estill was so moved by the plight of Syrian refugees that he stumped up US$1.5m to support 50 families for a year under Canada's private sponsorship programme. Read his inspiring story and hear from some of the refugees who benefited from his vision. Read more