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Making Personal Decisions

All philanthropy is deeply personal, even in cases where philanthropists tap expertise from trusted advisors. Certain decisions philanthropists must wrestle with are particularly dependent on the donor's unique set of values and beliefs and provide important guidance for their philanthropy: Should I give away my wealth while I’m still living or arrange to give in perpetuity? Should I publicize my giving or give anonymously? How should I involve my family?

One of the most important decisions philanthropists make is whether to spend down their philanthropic dollars.The majority of philanthropists we interviewed make the case for “giving while living,” believing they can maximize their impact by devoting their own time, influence, and skills. The opportunity to be a part of significant change during their own lifetime, they stress, is both meaningful and fun. When speaking about their choice to give while living, John and Laura Arnold say, “We really enjoy the challenge of giving money away effectively. We find that invigorating and we also get pleasure out of seeing the benefit that our money can get for society. And so, just selfishly, we want to have those emotions today. Not wait till we’re sixty.” (see Bridgespan FAQ “Do I Spend Down or Form a Foundation in Perpetuity?” for more information).

Our interviewees are not unanimous, however, on whether to give anonymously or publicly. Some choose to give without attaching their name to the funding, either for personal reasons or to place and keep the attention on grantees and beneficiaries. Others give publicly to bring greater attention to an issue about which they care deeply. They find that attaching their name to a cause can lend credibility and provide inspiration. (see Bridgespan FAQ “Should I Give Anonymously or Publicly? for more information).

As for giving vehicles, many of the philanthropists we interviewed give through multiple channels. Many, but not all, have established a foundation managed by professional staff to provide an organized and systematic way to give. (For more information see Bridgespan FAQ “Which Legal Structure or Structures Should I Use to Give My Money Away?”) Others, however, find the foundation structure too limiting, time-consuming, or resource-intensive. Some of our interviewees look beyond the nonprofit sector for opportunities to influence society, including for-profit ventures, and are redefining the field by finding innovative ways to put their dollars to work.

These are all personal decisions that take time and experience to make. Nevertheless, a number of the philanthropists we interviewed encourage others not to wait for complete clarity to act. Instead, they advocate getting started with philanthropy as early as possible, suggesting that doing so will enable more time to gain valuable experience, and more chances to get better over time.