Shedding some light on philanthropy advising

Emma Beeston clears up some of the misconceptions surrounding philanthropy advising.

When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I work as an independent philanthropy advisor, my side of the conversation goes something like this:  

Yes, it is a real job. 

Yes, people pay me to do it. 

Yes, it is a great job, but it is not as easy as you think. 

For our new book, Advising Philanthropists: Principles and practice, Beth Breeze and I interviewed 40 philanthropy advisors from 15 countries. Like me, these advisors often have to explain what they do, as this quote from one interviewee, Zaki Cooper, illustrates: “I think when many people hear about being a philanthropy advisor, they think it’s what I would almost describe as a ‘la la’ job. They think it’s all very easy. You just get a pot of money every day and give it out.” So here I want to tackle these three myths:

1. It is a real job

There are hundreds of people working as philanthropy advisors. They play an important role in guiding philanthropists, families and foundations to give and to give well. This can involve helping donors to work out where to focus their efforts; linking them with research, experts and communities to learn about social and environmental issues; developing giving plans; setting up giving vehicles and grant-making processes; facilitating family decision-making; and monitoring progress. Philanthropy advice is the provision of skilled support for thoughtful donors which combines knowledge of philanthropy and skills as a facilitator. It is growing as a profession and increasingly there are courses teaching philanthropy advice and networks for professionals.

2. It is worth paying for

Philanthropy advisors operate in a range of settings including within banks and wealth management practices, within non-profit organisations such as community foundations, and as independent practitioners or part of consultancy practices. Some are employees in family foundations, some charge fees, whilst others secure donated income in order to offer free donor support. Those working in banks and other financial services, must demonstrate their added value in attracting and retaining clients. We argue that the difference philanthropy advice makes such as encouraging clients to give more, to adopt good funding practices, to gain in confidence, and accelerate their giving means it is a valuable service worth paying for. Philanthropy advice should be seen in the same light as tax advisors, accountants and financial planners where there is an expectation of seeking advice and paying a fee. There are also wider benefits to society when donors are supported to find the right approach for them, as interviewee Rachel Harrington explains: “the more you enjoy your giving and the more you get out of it, the more you are likely to give, and want to learn and do better”.

3. It is not easy

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has something in common with Aristotle. In a CNN interview in November 2022, he commented that philanthropy is hard work. Something that Aristotle knew well before him in the 4th century BCE: “to give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how much, and when, and for what purpose, and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.” This makes the case for the need to have a skilled helper, but similarly, providing good philanthropy advice is also hard. It is a science, with the advisor needing knowledge of a whole array of causes, different philanthropic approaches, and impact measurement practice. And also an art, as a skilled advisor asks the right questions in the right order, manages the pace and depth of the process, and judges when to share knowledge and examples and when to challenge their client to do more and better. Add to this the fact that philanthropy is personal and emotional and often involves the family, you can see that it is a challenging role. 

In writing this book, we hope to satisfy people’s curiosity and also increase their understanding of philanthropy advice. We want philanthropy advice to be seen not as a ‘la la job’ but a legitimate profession worth joining and working with. We want to see the profession grow in profile and be recognised for the value it brings – for both philanthropists and society as a whole –  because we believe good advising leads to great giving. Learn more and order your copy here.