As an estate-planning practitioner, you may have clients who donate significant sums to charity, but have little experience beyond writing checks. Fortunately, individuals have been practicing modern philanthropy for 100 years, and American philanthropists, small and large, have built a vast store of experiential knowledge that you can pass along to your clients. Here are six key lessons learned in 100 years of giving and real-life examples of how those lessons have been put to use.


Blueprint for Change

Some individuals define philanthropy as “using private resources for public good,” but there’s more to it than that. Born of personal will and deliberation, philanthropy drafts a blueprint for change that seeks to solve problems. Most importantly, philanthropy reflects your client’s motivations, goals and values. It’s both strategic and highly personal.

Read the letters of those who’ve joined one of the latest movements in philanthropy’s first 100 years, The Giving Pledge. Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates started the club for the world’s wealthiest people. To join, members had to vow to give at least half of their net worth to good causes, either during their lifetimes or after their deaths. Membership now totals more than 110, including one of the latest pledgers, Sara Blakely, founder of the undergarment company Spanx, with annual sales estimated at around $250 million. 

Blakely, who at age 42 is the first female self-made billionaire on the list, writes in her Giving Pledge letter:


Since I was a little girl, I have always known I would help women. In my wildest dreams I never thought I would have started with their butts. 


But, she also writes: 


Millions of women around the world … simply because of their gender … are not given the same chance I had to create my own success and follow my dreams. It is for those women that I make this pledge. 


Blakely, like every other person on the list, has specific personal reasons for giving and a specific game plan for funding the change she seeks. 

So did John D. Rockefeller when his new foundation decided to take on yellow fever worldwide in 1916. This choice, based on Rockefeller’s signature philanthropic strategy of seeking to isolate and combat the root causes of human suffering, eventually led to the development of a vaccine. But, it took 21 years. Patience and resolve, fuelled by Rockefeller’s personal commitment, were required to deliver humanitarian dividends.

Other notable philanthropists have their own motivations for giving. See “Oseola McCarty”, p, 36, “Walter Annenberg,” p. 38, and “Stuart Davidson,” p. 39, for their stories.

Philanthropy isn’t for everyone. It requires vision, engagement and perseverance. Nevertheless, it offers the potential to make a real contribution to improving the world and, in so doing, to bring fulfillment and joy to the donor. 


Take Informed Risks

All giving entails some risk. Philanthropists seek to be conscious of that risk before, during and after they give. In fact, informed risktaking characterizes the most effective giving. 

Philanthropists support new ideas, technologies and ways of approaching old problems. They often need to employ extraordinary determination over years to develop advances that benefit people. Your clients may not know it, but philanthropy took risks to support untried ideas, like penicillin, educational television and the Green Revolution in agriculture—all of which eventually rendered significant service to society. 

But, the giving doesn’t have to be massive in scale or conception to have a sizable impact. The process is the important element here. And, it’s the same whether a big foundation is doing the giving or simply an individual with a passion to create change or seek justice. What’s the process? Simple:


Learning → Risk → More Learning → Adjustment → Patience


Example: Acting as lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe, filed a class action suit in 1996 against the U.S. Department of the Interior, charging that it had systematically violated its trust duties to nearly a half-million Native Americans. The suit focused on decades of government mismanagement of Individual Indian Monies accounts, funds held in trust and intended to compensate families for the public management of their land, oil, natural gas, mineral, timber and agricultural resources. With crucial support from individual donors and funders that included the Ford, Lannan and Northwest Area foundations (as well as the proceeds of Cobell’s 1997 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award”), the suit labored through the federal court system for over 13 years. Finally, in December 2010, President Obama acknowledged the claims and signed a Congressionally-authorized settlement of $3.4 billion. At the time, Cobell said she hoped her work would inspire a new generation of Native Americans to fight for the rights of others and lift their communities out of poverty.



Smart philanthropists don’t try to do it alone. Since John D. Rockefeller, Sr. hired the first philanthropic advisor (Frederick Gates), professional advice has been a hallmark of effective philanthropy. Often, financial or legal advisors play a key role in this regard and sometimes end up serving on foundation boards. The key lesson for donors here is to widen the circle of information and expertise to avoid pitfalls and increase potential impact. 

Collaboration is also important when it comes to choosing partners in philanthropy. Traditionally, philanthropy innovates to influence the public sector. This means partnerships of all different kinds between philanthropists and government bodies, while complicated and challenging, can deliver unrivaled results. 

Donors also work with other donors to expand impact. Beyond the immediate impact of the project at hand, this kind of collaboration also builds capacity for the future, establishing informal networks of donors that can share expertise and information, as well as collaborate on future projects. 

Example: Despite extensive efforts by the JB Fernandes Memorial Trust to aid disadvantaged children in Portugal, its programming was seriously hindered by inadequate public systems of care and protection. The trust, which began making grants in 1998, responded by creating a working group of social service, non-governmental organization, legal and judicial leaders to find ways of improving outcomes for the more than 11,000 children in state custodial care. This first-ever collaborative task force, which also drew on the experiences of U.S. judges and social workers, identified barriers and solutions to providing better child advocacy, professional care, behavioral and mental health services and adoption policies. The cross-sector working group approach has been an important force in advancing Portugal’s care system toward a healthier, more child-centered approach.


Think Globally

Many philanthropists want to give in their hometown or to a place where they have roots or a special connection. But, even such localized giving benefits from an awareness of how giving—and living—have gone global.

Look at any area of our lives. Think of technology, business, travel, media and even wealth management. We’re not only globally interconnected, but also, we’re globally interdependent. Think of immigration and how, in a very human sense, everywhere has become a part of each somewhere. Think of the environment, security, human rights, the arts and disease. Many of the biggest issues philanthropists face have no borders. 

Your clients can make their local funding even more effective by staying up to date with the latest global practices, technology and social issues. The first step to changing the world is to endeavor to understand it. 

Example: Jennifer and Peter Buffett’s philanthropy seeks to empower women and girls, so they were eager to help end child marriage. But, rather than start giving immediately, they began with research—first to understand the scope of the problem worldwide and then to survey the existing efforts to address it. What they discovered was shocking. An estimated 14 million girls are married each year before they reach the age of 18. These girls are denied basic human rights, as well as educational and life opportunities. When, in 2011, the Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, established a global campaign to end child marriage, the Buffetts decided to join the effort. Their foundation, the Novo Foundation, offered early support to the campaign, partnering with a number of other funders and non-govermental organizations. The worldwide movement, called “Girls Not Brides,” now has 200 members from 40 countries. 


Plan on Change

Wise donors build flexibility into their plans. Over the past 100 years, there’s been a transformation of the tools of giving. In the beginning, it was usually a matter of writing a check. Now, there are program-related investments (philanthropic loans), loan guarantees, donor advised funds, fiscal sponsorships, impact investing—the list goes on and on. In addition, the laws pertaining to giving can change—as evidenced by the Obama administration’s plan to limit the charitable tax deduction. And, the world and its needs are also changing at a rapid pace. Regular assessment of a giving program can help take advantage of opportunities and avoid some problems.

Example. The world’s biggest foundation designs all its work around change—no matter how large the project. One example: eradicating polio. To pursue this goal, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stays in a continual learning mode, asking questions and reviewing progress. In 2010, when the foundation launched a $2.6 billion strategy to eliminate polio, it included quarterly, independent monitoring and evaluation by a global advisory body. For Bill Gates, the need for such philanthropic change management is urgent:


If we fail, the disease will not stay at its current level, it will spread back into countries where it has been eliminated, and it will kill and paralyze hundreds of thousands of children who used to be safe.1 


The process that the Gates Foundation uses to assess its giving is the same for polio as it is for all its grantmaking. There are four steps: 


1. Develop a strategy; 

2. Make grants; 

3. Measure progress; and

4. Adjust the strategy.


The Method of Giving Matters

How you give is at least as important as how much you give. 

Philanthropy is more than a chance for a donor to leave a personal or familial stamp on a project or a building; it’s a chance to leave an example of generosity and leadership for future generations. Your clients will probably not take on the eradication of polio, or any other disease, for that matter. But, they can seek to make a difference on their own terms. Legacy isn’t only measured in dollars, but also in how we live our lives.  

Andrew Carnegie’s approach to philanthropy is one of his greatest gifts to the world. His success in the steel industry made him one of the richest men in the world, but his funding of libraries is, arguably, his more lasting legacy. (He built 2,509, including 1,679 in the United States.) An early champion of effective philanthropy, he believed that “indiscriminate charity” is actually a detriment to society and that “the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves.”2 Because of the way he gave, he’s now known as one of the founders of modern philanthropy. 

Example. Chuck Feeney helped create Duty Free Shoppers Group (DFS), the world’s largest luxury goods retailer. In 1984, he gave his 38 percent share in the company to his foundations, collectively called the “Atlantic Philanthropies.” It was a huge gift that grew bigger when DFS was sold for $2.5 billion in 1996. Chuck adopted the “giving while living” strategy and decided to give away all the money in the foundations, which will close operation by 2020. Through the end of 2011, grants totaled $6.1 billion, including major investments in Vietnam and Ireland. “I had one idea that never changed in my mind,” said Chuck, “that you should use your wealth to help people.”


Balance Heart and Mind

David Rockefeller is the only surviving grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Known for his career as a leading U.S. banker, David is also a philanthropist of vision and impact. He has a virtually unrivaled perspective on giving, having lived through 98 of philanthropy’s first 100 years:


I do think that the heart is important as well as the mind in charitable giving. And that a program of giving that’s based exclusively on a rather intellectual and very objective [strategy] may miss important opportunities ... The ability I’ve had to participate in a number of really exciting and worthwhile undertakings has given me enormous pleasure. I put high on the list of satisfactions one’s ability to do things that are worthwhile and things you believe in.4 


Many philanthropists have discovered this truth on their own journeys of giving. The rational part of us helps assess opportunity and risk, manage resources and evaluate results. But, personal involvement creates engagement and helps donors maintain commitment through difficult moments. Passion feeds patience. And, patience feeds a long-term perspective, which aids any philanthropic strategy.  

Example: Dorothy Mills believed that there had to be a better way. From her perspective, as a spouse and caregiver, the doctors treating her terminally ill husband seemed driven solely by technology and pharmaceuticals. Her desire to improve the quality of his remaining days through what were then called “alternatives” was met with indifference and, often, outright contempt by the medical establishment. This experience remained with her long after his death, and she committed her philanthropy to changing both health care perceptions and practices. Dorothy established a series of fellowships in integrative medicine that provided general practitioners and pediatricians real-life opportunities to bring evidence-based medicine and “natural” healing methods together in a single therapeutic approach. Her vision and support helped to establish New York’s Continuum Center for Health and Healing in 2000 and led to the 2004 publication of Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice, the leading medical school textbook on humanistic care.                                       



1. Bill Gates, keynote speech at 2011 Rotary International Convention, Rotary International, New Orleans (May 24, 2011).

2. Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth,” North American Review, 148, No. 391 (June 1889).

3. Conor O’Clery, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune (2007).

4. Speech by David Rockefeller, “Three Centuries of Rockefeller Family Philanthropy (Highlights),” (November 2004),