What it Takes to

Succeed as a Philanthropy Consultant

Welcome back! In What is a Philanthropy Consultant, I offered advice for getting started professionally in philanthropy. In this post, I’ll explain more about the day-to-day work of philanthropic consulting: what we do, why it matters, and what it takes to succeed.

Let’s start with the basics. In my earlier post, I explained what the philanthropy sector is and isn’t, and where consultancies fit in. The most common misconceptions about our work are that it’s extremely glamorous, and that it’s not actually work. Neither is accurate, for all the reasons I described. (Although I still maintain that prototyping unicorns sounds awesome. If anyone actually does this, I’d love to subscribe to your newsletter.)

In reality, philanthropy consulting—like management consulting—is a set of professional services that are available for hire. Clients can take up the services they need, in any combination, and use them continuously or ad-hoc at any point on the giving/granting continuum. It’s just like hiring an architect to design a building, a contractor to build it, or a structural engineer to inspect it. The size and scope of the services you’ll seek are directly related to the size and scope of what you’re building.

  • Design and build: do you need a home, an office, a restaurant, a hospital, an airport?
  • Moving in: do you need it furnished, secured, made energy-efficient, etc. to be usable?
  • Using it: do you need it cleaned, weatherproofed, or otherwise improved to stay current with changing standards or made ready for new occupants?

What consultants offer

These considerations are just like the ones facing our clients. The philanthropic services you’ll need will be influenced by multiple factors, including your objectives, time horizon, and resources. Someone who wants to launch a global endeavor to eradicate a contagious disease worldwide will have different goals than someone who wants to deliver ground-level services to their local community. Plus, every philanthropist is an individual with unique motivations and perspectives. Someone with lots of giving or granting experience will have more prior examples to draw from than someone who is making their first big philanthropic investment.

As a result, our consulting services and deliverables are customized for each client. Someone who wants to endow their alma mater with a once-in-a-lifetime gift will be looking for different expertise than someone who wants to understand the root causes of poverty. In other words, to use my earlier architecture example, someone who wants to build a modest family home in the style of their current neighborhood will need very different expertise—and a very different budget! —than someone who wants to build the first-ever football stadium on the moon.

Philanthropy is a broad field, so there are a variety of goals, tactics, and methodologies inside its borders. But although every project takes on a unique form, there are commonalities in how consultancies organize their service offerings.

In general, philanthropic consulting firms design, build, implement, and evaluate philanthropic projects. Many firms focus on strategy and research—in other words, how to understand the issues, and where and how to invest in addressing them. Some firms focus on tactical grantmaking, which is the process of finding and vetting recipients, disbursing funds, and tracking their usage. Still others focus on programming: designing and delivering direct services, large and small, for people or areas in need. And many specialist consultancies focus on outcomes, particularly the discipline of monitoring and evaluation, which is increasingly called MEL or MEAL.

Each of these disciplines offers myriad approaches and techniques. For example, an emerging approach in tactical grantmaking is trust-based philanthropy, an approach that emphasizes unrestricted multi-year funding. Grantee-centric funding is a similar philosophy that seeks to address unproductive power dynamics.

Effective consultants need to understand these distinctions and stay informed about new evidence and shifting practices. But it’s not enough to understand intellectually how things work; we also need to have the emotional intelligence to apply that understanding correctly. Our clients might be momentarily impressed with a discussion about the long-term effectiveness of cash transfers, but what they really want to know is which tactics are right for them right now.

What clients want

“That’s great,” you’re saying, “but why does anyone need a consultant? Do your homework and figure it out yourself.”

Which is true! Many philanthropists do exactly that. They announce major gifts, launch a foundation, or join a collaborative to enact the change they want to see in the world. And in doing so, they may determine that special expertise or additional resources are necessary to launch, grow, or strengthen their efforts.

New entrants are often surprised by how complicated and difficult philanthropic work is. As Warren Buffet famously observed, “In business, you look for the easy things to do. In philanthropy, you are really tackling the problems that people of intellect, people with money have thought about in the past and have had a tough time coming up with solutions. So philanthropy is a tougher game.”

I previously described Geneva Global as “a one-stop shop for anyone who needs help figuring out their philanthropy: where to start, which avenues to pursue or avoid, how to level up, who to partner with, articulating what’s important and why, and the mechanics of making it all fit together.” Consultancies like ours offer services that can be additive, complementary, or even just plain old-fashioned outsourcing. Our client profiles include:

  • A solo philanthropist who wants to keep things lean. They don’t want a private foundation and instead rely on us to provide the research, strategy, and even grant management for their passion project.
  • A foundation team that wants external expertise. They already have their own staff, but want our objectivity and specialized project management skills to handle a variety of workstreams—particularly the complicated, multi-stakeholder ones that involve bringing together lots of external partners with different objectives.
  • The leadership and employees of a growing company with a heart for corporate social responsibility. They wanted to add grassroots development to their existing CSR and have partnered with us to find complementary opportunities they can support. As part of managing their programs, we even organize field visits for their personnel to meet with grantees and discuss the projects, improving employee engagement and increasing the company’s institutional understanding about how to achieve social impact.
  • Multiple divisions of a giant multilateral. We’re performing landscape research and analysis to help various groups make strategic decisions about new priorities and audiences. Since they’re exploring areas that are new to them, but familiar to us, we can share advice and experience that will help them leap-frog common pitfalls without losing any momentum.
  • A high-profile donor collaborative. We’re working with a group of founding donors to launch a global initiative, and we’re acting as the center spoke in a flywheel of fast-moving activities with big, bold goals.

As you can see, our clients don’t fit neatly into simple categories. They’re each in search of particular expertise or resources, and so our services vary accordingly.

Funders, for example, want to understand issues, develop strategies, find partners, and make an impact. New givers often need a grounding or baseline understanding first, to orient themselves to the vast world of philanthropy and the many issues and tactics within it. In the word of one tech entrepreneur, “Giving away money sounds romantic and great, but it’s hard to do.” Even highly-experienced funders may need outside help to learn more about an issue that’s evolving rapidly or to find the gaps that need to be filled on big, global issues.

We recently delivered research to a philanthropist who wanted to understand how to best make a difference in complex issue areas, e.g. homelessness. For each issue they selected, we identified the major funders and researched their giving approaches, noting commonalities and divisions. We provided analysis to highlight trends and real-time developments, which allowed our client to focus their giving strategy. By understanding the existing landscape, they could make informed decisions about where and how to enter each issue area and to do so in multiple directions at once using a coordinated strategy.

On the flip side, we also work with funding recipients. Nonprofits want to raise awareness, reach target audiences, deliver results, and achieve gains for their focus areas. If they’re technical experts, they may not have the fundraising skillset to create materials or design campaigns to engage and steward funders. If they’re small organizations, they may find it more cost-effective to outsource time-limited or specialty projects so that staff (or volunteer) time isn’t fractured across too many priorities. If they’re large organizations, they may want fresh eyes to evaluate whether their various strategies and tools are harmonized and aligned with mission-critical needs.

And these examples don’t even include our work to prepare in-depth strategies, deliver programs ranging from experimental pilots to large-scale initiatives, evaluate theories of change and assess KPIs, or build capacity and communities of practice.

Why it matters

“That’s super,” you’re saying. “Lots of fancy lingo. But what do you actually do all day?”

Great question! Our day at the office probably looks a lot like anyone else’s: emails, conference calls, meetings, status updates, timesheets. To be sure, I performed a rigorous scientific survey of my colleagues’ workloads. (Not really; I just asked them, “What are you doing today?” on our company’s messaging app. They kindly replied with specifics and sent me some funny gifs too.)

Right now, my colleagues are:

  • Developing requests for proposals (RFPs) in multiple languages
  • Performing online research
  • Reviewing project budgets
  • Designing a funder website
  • Copyediting a client report
  • Attending a board meeting
  • Conducting hiring interviews
  • Updating a workstream tracker
  • Taking a professional development course
  • Entering data into a client database
  • Blogging (spoiler: that’s me!)

Pretty glamorous, right? What’s important is what these activities ultimately seek to accomplish.

One of the core concepts in our work is that philanthropic “transactions” involve three parties: funder, receiver, and end beneficiary. Transactions in other fields are typically two-party: buyer and seller. But in philanthropy, there’s a third stakeholder group: beneficiaries. The donor (funder) makes a gift or grant to a charitable organization (receiver) in order to contribute to the public good (the end beneficiaries). This beneficiary category could include, for example, everyone who accesses healthcare at a clinic, learns to read in a school, visits a museum, lives in a neighborhood that now has clean drinking water, or is affected by policy changes through advocacy efforts. (Philanthropy is technically different than charity, which is short-term, one-to-one transactions, whereas philanthropy is systems-based.)

As a result, philanthropic endeavors have a broader set of stakeholders than, say, a retail business. Social sector organizations must consider how to attract and engage supporters for their mission as well as their services. Beneficiaries are often not the only stakeholders for the services or goods they are accessing. Philanthropists must consider how to reach those they ultimately want to help through intermediaries and partnerships.

In practice, this means that any kind of philanthropic work involves an awful lot of people. People with different needs and priorities, goals and plans, hopes and dreams. As a result, when philanthropic consultants go about our daily activities of meetings or calls or emails, we do so with an awareness of how far into the world our work ultimately reaches.

That list of things my colleagues are doing right now?

  • Those RFPs are designed to provide much-needed funding to organizations working on the frontlines of a serious human rights issue.
  • That online research is to identify potential funders who can bring critical last-mile health efforts across the finish line.
  • The budget review is to inform an advocacy strategy that, if enacted, could positively impact thousands upon thousands of people.

We’re not prototyping unicorns, but we just might be prototyping something even more amazing.

I feel lucky to be able to do this kind of work. As a profession, philanthropic consulting isn’t for everyone—it can be complicated, demanding, and unforgiving. It can be also be rewarding, meaningful, and humbling. (Which is true of the broader social sector, too.) Social change is important. And we need plenty of hardworking, curious, and thoughtful people in the sector at large to do its everyday work, glamorous or not. So if this sounds like the field for you, then, in the words of John Lennon, “I hope someday you’ll join us.”


Learn more on how Geneva Global designs, builds, implements, and evaluates philanthropic projects.