Faster, higher, stronger: Olympic lessons for philanthropy

This article first appeared in Alliance Magazine.

Coming from ancient Greece, even the word ‘philanthropy’ hints at similarities with the Olympic Games. And there is much which philanthropists, donors, charities and those of us who support and guide them can learn from the athletes whose ambition and tenacity have brought them to London 2012. Inspired by the five rings – themselves symbolizing the five continents that participate – we focus on five lessons of the Games.

Federer doesn’t box 

Athletes choose one sport and do it for years, to the exclusion of other sports, until they become excellent. It’s the selectiveness that enables them to excel.

Great donors focus likewise. The Wellcome Trust – the UK’s largest charity – works solely for ‘extraordinary improvements in human and animal health’. The Gates Foundation, the largest charity ever, focuses on just three issues: global health, international development, and secondary and post-secondary education in the US. The Shell Foundation – one of the very few foundations to publish details of its failures – believes that focusing on one issue (developing social enterprises working on development and environmental issues) enabled it to learn what was failing and hence quadruple its success rate.

Hence the advice of the entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to ‘put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket’.

Where’s the target? 

Knowing whether you’re succeeding and improving is easy in archery or high jump or swimming, so athletes know whether adjustments to their technique are paying off. The feedback loop is short and clear.

Few donors have that. Their goals may be long-term (eg finding cures for cancer), their impact may be too diffuse to be measurable (eg improving wellbeing), and/or there may be good reasons why people won’t tell what they’re doing or why (eg reducing corruption).

Yet ambitious donors find feedback from which they can learn. They might only use techniques already proved to work. They ask grantees for feedback, eg through Grantee Perception Reports run by the US Center for Effective Philanthropy. They monitor the costs created by their reporting and applications processes. 

All sports are team sports 

The tears of Andy Murray’s mother and girlfriend after the Wimbledon men’s singles final are testimony that even ostensibly solo athletes are part of a team. Even tennis players invariably thank the coaches, physios and managers on whom they rely.

Similarly, great donors work with others whose skills complement theirs. Hence Comic Relief and the Henry Smith Charity – both funders with a single office in London – team up with community foundations to distribute to small, local organizations.

To eliminate hepatitis B in China, the Hong Kong-based ZeShan Foundation partnered with Stanford University to vaccinate children in one district of one province. Then it enlisted other donors to cover the whole province. Eventually the Chinese government joined the team, announcing that it would vaccinate all children under 15 across the country.

Legs alone don’t win marathons

Serena Williams said she’d award her Wimbledon 2010 title to her serve, and though it may seem that serves are executed by arms, they involve the whole body’s strength – notably the legs, which often surprises beginners.

Similarly, donating organizations (eg foundations) and operating organizations (eg charities) need a full set of skills, not just the glamorous parts or most obvious pieces. Hence they need strong core functions, for which they often need unrestricted money. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, wrote that: ‘To make the greatest impact on society requires first and foremost a great organization … Restricted giving misses [this] fundamental point.’ His view is supported by research showing that the more an organization invests in its core functions – ie the higher its ‘admin’ spend – the higher its performance. There’s a reason why tennis players do pilates.

Using everything they can

Winners will use their physical strengths and mental strengths, the weaknesses in their opponents’ armoury, even their opponent’s own strengths in creative ways in their quest to win.

As do outstanding donors, of any scale. The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation has meeting rooms that it lets charities use. Bill Clinton has access, so he hosts glitzy events to inspire and prompt the glitz-seeking rich into giving. Goldman Sachs has financial wizards so it created an innovative financial bond which is accelerating deployment of vaccines. McKenzie Steiner, a six-year-old girl cited by Clinton in his book Giving, had time and friends, so organized a collective beach cleanup.

Faster, higher, stronger?

The world record speed in the men’s 100 metre sprint has improved by 10 per cent in the last 100 years (9.6 per cent from 1912 to the current record set in 2009). The social and environmental problems that philanthropy seeks to solve have, as Warren Buffett puts it, ‘already resisted great intellects and often great money’. Improving philanthropy’s effectiveness by 10 per cent would make a remarkable dent

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