Book explores traits of high-impact philanthropists

Technology and networking are central to making the most difference

High-impact philanthropic efforts, from organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Cisco Systems, that have the most success at solving societal problems, share a common set of characteristics: They keep their focus on a small core of issues, establish networks of like-minded individuals, corporations and nonprofits for those target areas, and understand that it's not just about giving money, a new book on philanthropy said.

"They're committed to a few areas where they can really go deep," said John Kania, who with Leslie Crutchfield and Mark Kramer co-authored "Do More than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World." The book, recently published by Jossey-Bass, details research done by the three in their roles at FSG, a nonprofit consultancy. The book follows up "Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits," written by Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, and chosen as a top 10 business book by The Economist in 2007.

Advocacy is another key characteristic of funders who make the most difference. "It is rare [for corporations] to say we're going to train and deploy advocates," Crutchfield said. "That's why we wrote this book -- to hold up that: a., it's possible, and b., leading corporations are doing it, and c., you can, too."

Crutchfield and Kania always start by asking senior executives at companies that hire them as consultants the question, "what keeps you up at night" and then listening to the lists of top issues, Kania said. "Then we look at those and ask what are the top societal issues involved in that," he said. Those areas are then where the companies put their focus, taking into account how the expertise of the company can be put to best use.

The Cisco Networking Academy, for instance, has trained millions of people for ICT jobs at 9,000 academies in 165 countries and via online courses. The academy program started modestly, after Cisco gave networking equipment to schools near its headquarters and found that teachers needed training in how to make the best use of the gear. The larger opportunity to develop an education system to train networking administrators quickly became clear, as Cisco executives realized that the company was well-positioned to help disadvantaged people develop high-demand job skills. The company also recognized the business opportunities inherent in setting up a model educational program with networking and Internet technologies as the backbone -- a pool of prospective employees is always handy to have.

Cisco's vast network of global partners and connections helped the academy grow from its humble origins in 1997 to today, with more than 900,000 students annually sharpening their ICT skills through the company's program. "The numbers are fairly staggering," Kania said of what Cisco has achieved.

Some companies are still led by executives uncomfortable with mixing business and social issues, sometimes over concerns about potential conflicts of interest. But that old-guard approach to corporate cultures and leadership is giving way more and more as the Millennial generation continues to enter the workforce. That generation has deep concern about social issues. Kania said he has no data to back this up, but his years of experience and witness to corporate leadership changes suggest to him that the trend is that younger CEOs in particular will be advocates for social causes and push their companies in those directions.

Bill Gates has helped drive that movement, putting into practice what he had long promised he would do, when he and his wife set up their foundation with its focus on global health care and U.S. education. "He's very articulate in this -- we've got to understand these social problems in all of their complexity," Kania said. Besides advocating for those in need, Gates has met with other corporate magnates to persuade them to commit to giving away significant portions of their wealth in their lifetimes, Crutchfield added.

Again, that anecdote is indicative of the power of networks and networking in high-impact philanthropy. The next technological terrain in that level of philanthropy is being demonstrated in Cincinnati's Strive Together partnership, with the goal of improving schools in that Ohio metro area, which includes northeastern Kentucky. "One of the first things they did was sit down with engineers from GE and other companies ... and they mapped out the entire spectrum of every organization in Cincinnati that touches a person's life, from before they're born, through school. They tore that apart and looked at what they could do to get players to work together in a systematic way," Kania said.

As part of that, partners in the initiative set up a "simple," digital online network to track information and data and share it, coordinating information across a sprawling network. The emerging model of a shared measurement system from that program is a "revolution" in such use of technology for a philanthropic aim, Kania said. There are other examples of nonprofits sharing their vast stores of information as well, he said, speaking excitedly of the trend.

The sort of widespread change in approaching philanthropy that the authors advocate for requires two things -- one is the behavioral piece with the shift in how corporations think of philanthropy, and the other is the technological systems that enable more efficient information sharing and joining of networks and such. "The systems are now there to enable this to actually happen," Kania said.

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Tags business managementcorporate social responsibilityCisco SystemsJossey-BassBill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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