The Top 5 Qualities of Successful Philanthropists

Successful philanthropists have a clear focus on their vision for change. They choose a specific cause they want to make a reality and then look for organizations to help bring it to life. They share agenda-setting power with the people or communities they want to serve. They know you must empower people and give them agency to drive meaningful societal change.


Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s emotions. It is an important quality that can lead to prosocial behavior, like donating money to help those in need. Successful philanthropists, for example, Larry Gaynor, are empathetic to the struggles of others. They venture to alleviate these struggles without wanting a return on their investment. This is known as altruistic philanthropy. While everyone may feel emotional empathy, cognitive empathy is more of a learned skill. Individuals may have lower levels of cognitive empathy due to their upbringing, social factors, or life experiences.


The most successful philanthropists have the foresight to see how their gifts will impact people and the wider society. They translate their aspirations into specific outcomes and work hard to bring about change for the better of humanity. They become and remain experts on the communities they wish to focus on. This doesn’t just mean attending an annual celebration or hearing a CEO talk at a gala, but spending real time in the community to understand the external pressures and changing environment. They are flexible to react to that and use various tools, from significant multi-year commitments to one-off grants. They also learn and are open to new ideas that can make a more significant impact. This includes embracing ideas that benefit others and opposing those that harm society.


A thought-out philanthropist is willing to commit and knows what that commitment means. They recognize that different people have different levels of capacity, interest, and time and can’t possibly support everything all the time. And so they appreciate whatever level of participation people can offer. They also know that to make a difference truly, they need to focus on the problem at hand and not just on specific organizations. They identify what they want to see happen in the world and then find groups to make it a reality. This allows them to maintain a holistic view of the issue while working with many groups to catalyze change. As a result, they are more effective in their efforts. This quality also demonstrates confidence in others, enticing them to join.


In a world where many philanthropists make decisions from afar about communities, they know little about, great philanthropists invest time and effort in becoming true experts on the causes or communities they wish to focus on. Visiting the region, meeting with local leaders, and reading books, policy papers, and pieces of history help them gain greater insight into the community’s current dynamics and changing environments.


Some donors aspire to audacious results, such as ending homelessness or hunger. They privately express frustration that their extensive checks need to deliver the scale of change they hope for. To help them achieve their goals, successful philanthropists identify specific outcomes to measure and then develop and evaluate strategies that lead to those outcomes. They also seek out a range of information about their grantees, including successes and failures. Some philanthropists play nonfinancial roles by donating time or services to organizations they support. This can include everything from convening stakeholders to offering strategic consulting, facilitating partnerships, or providing infrastructure like office space. This approach requires careful planning and coordination to ensure the efforts align with the pre-determined outcome goals established in step two.


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