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Impact in philanthropy

Updated: Jun 3

hands holding a heart

Image courtesy of Giving Compass

In the philanthropic sector, there are numerous ways to first define and then measure impact. One can study the impact of nonprofits on their respective communities/communities, the impact of foundations on their partners and communities, or the impact of people involved in philanthropy on how their experiences affect them or the people around them.

In some cases, the word “impact” has become a word without meaning, one that has no clear definition because it is used so frequently that the word itself has become vague and unclear.

However, harp-weaver staff believe that the word impact can be used effectively when it’s more clearly defined.

We use the following definition for the purpose of clarity and consistency when working with various clients:

Impact - a significant positive effect; or to strongly influence a cause, field, or community

It is possible for foundations of all sizes to achieve impact as it is defined above. Not only is it important to know impact is possible and critical to pursue, but it is also essential that a foundation understand how real impact can happen. harp-weaver has learned that the following three factors are key to achieving significant impact:

Impact takes passion: Many barriers impede impact, but you can overcome them if you are engaged. People who care deeply about a cause will press on when challenges seem insurmountable, do the hard work to make real change, and refuse to settle for what the authors of Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results call satisfactory underperformance or “accepting things as they are without really pushing toward what might be possible.”

Impact takes intentionality: Foundations that achieve impact typically outline a clear plan to achieve goals and intentionally apply their many assets (dollars, influence, reputation, time) according to the plan, assess their results, and use that learning in the next round of planning and implementation. The process looks like this:

a graphic showing how impact can be measured

Impact takes patience: You rarely achieve impact immediately, no matter what field you fund. Even among foundations with sizeable resources, it takes time – and therefore, patience – to see impact. The process looks like this: You intentionally pursue a particular path through multiple grants and non-grant activities (i.e. convening or collaborating) to create results that lead to impact over time.

Below are several different examples of client (foundation) grants and one non-grant that harp-weaver believes have had impact, as well as the effect harp-weaver had on facilitating the grant/s and learnings (which are an important part of understanding impact).

1) General operating support grants to music organizations in Greater Philadelphia

An independent 100-year-old private foundation supports music organizations in the Greater Philadelphia Area. During the 2022-2023 fiscal year, 109 music presenting, music performing, and music educating nonprofit organizations received grants. harp-weaver serves as the outsourced staff for the foundation and conducted site visits, answered questions during the application process, reviewed all applications, and made recommendations to the Board Committee on the allocation of funds.

Grant Impact Highlights: So many music organizations continued to be challenged because of the low rate of attendance at performances and the volatile financial markets impacting fundraising efforts. These grants provide essential general operating support.

Learning: General operating support is a critical form of funding allowing the leadership at organizations to make the decision on the best use of the grant.

2) A one-year, $100,000 catalytic grant to launch a new program

A family foundation based outside of Philadelphia provided a catalytic grant to help launch an enterprise at Pathways to Housing as sourced by harp-weaver. Pathways to Housing sets the standard for Housing First. The organization manages a low barrier (come as you are) rapid re-housing program. There were 550 people in their program in 2022. They provide an innovative Treatment Access Partnership with Project HOME and Prevention Point Philadelphia. Sixty-five percent of their clients seek treatment within 6 months of being housed because of case management.

Grant Impact Highlights: Launched July 1, 2022; completed 123 customer projects in 3 months of operations; earned $30,000 in revenue; donated $25,000 worth of furniture to partner Philadelphia Furniture Bank; hired a full-time driver in October.

Learning: We recognize that new approaches require a deep appreciation for iteration, and failure and learning rarely follow a linear path. We have learned to address this by: (1) Partnering with leading grantee organizations with strong track records for innovation; and (2) Adopting a “fail fast” approach for brand new models – pilots with clear measurable outcomes and go/no go milestones.

3) Convening grantee partners together to discuss current issues and relevant topics (non-grant)

The 100-year-old foundation discussed above, for which harp-weaver provides outsourced staffing, has convened grantee partners together in a virtual forum multiple times since August 2020. Topics have ranged from adapting and innovating in response to COVID-19, centering equity into an organization’s operations and programming, nonprofit boards and equity, presenting an organization’s budget and financials, centering youth voice, and centering community voice. Many of these programs featured nonprofit partners sharing their own experiences and expertise.

Impact Highlights: In a climate where dollars are scarce and organizations feel like they have to fight for resources and funding, these forums provide opportunities for organizations to share best practices, learn from one another, build relationships, and be in a safe space where they can ask questions and express themselves.

Learning: Foundation-supported convenings provide ways for nonprofit organizations to come together to share ideas, resources, tips, and learnings. Foundations have the network and connections and can more readily support convenings essential for gathering together and fostering learning and collaboration.

There’s a great deal more that could be said, and has been shared, about impact in philanthropy. We at harp-weaver hope that this post encourages funders to explore more about impact and what it means for them.

For those interested in learning more about impact, you can check out resources from The Center for High Impact Philanthropy, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and Giving Compass.

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