Philanthropy and social change

With its free annual toolkit, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy helps donors create a bigger impact.

Two women help a child balance building blocks
The Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) has a new toolkit for maximizing impact. This free, online resource, which is coupled with a free webinar on Jan. 25, contains strategies, exemplars, and curated resources for individuals and organizations alike. (Image: ParentChild+)

From solar-powered cookstoves in Madagascar to low-interest loans for struggling Americans, philanthropy changes lives. With examples like these, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) has a new toolkit for maximizing impact. This free online resource, coupled with a free webinar on Jan. 25, offers strategies, exemplars, and curated resources for individuals and organizations alike.

Housed in the School of Social Policy & Practice, CHIP focuses on how philanthropy can do more good. “Our lens is social impact, social innovation, social justice,” says Katherina “Kat” Rosqueta, CHIP’s founding executive director. “What role can and should philanthropy play in advancing positive social change?”

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Rosqueta and Kelly Andrews, CHIP’s director of knowledge management and marketing, discuss how to make the most of every dollar given.

What’s the motivation behind the annual toolkit? Why make this resource available for free year after year?

Rosqueta: The Center’s mission is to help philanthropy have greater social impact, and the toolkit is one way we do this. It’s for anyone wanting to make a bigger difference with whatever philanthropic funds they control—whether it’s $10 or $1 million, whether the person is an individual donor or a family or a professional grant maker or the head of a public charity.

Andrews: It’s not focused on a particular geography. It’s not focused on a particular cause area. Hopefully, no matter what somebody cares about, no matter where they are in the world, no matter how much money they have, they will find tools and information and opportunities in the toolkit. That’s why we do it.

What’s new in the toolkit for 2024?

Rosqueta: This year, we devoted more time and space to talking about the fundamentals of practicing high impact philanthropy. I’ve never heard someone say, ‘I’m interested in low impact philanthropy.’ But what does high impact philanthropy mean? We explain the key principles of high impact philanthropy and then provide lots of examples and tools to help people incorporate those principles into how they give.

Our annual toolkit always included exemplars, which are nonprofit organizations that serve as really great examples of how philanthropy can be translated into high social impact. This time around, we were more explicit about what an exemplar is and how we work with three partner organizations—Lipman Family Prize, GreenLight Fund, and Lever for Change—to identify, analyze, and select them. We also explicitly pulled out lessons that could be applicable to other programs and suggest ways to find similar organizations.

Andrews: It’s more of a step-by-step guide this time, where we talk about what high impact philanthropy is, what these exemplars mean, and how you can use them. We also talk about our four philanthropic plays, which is a framework that we developed a few years back. Funders who’ve participated in our High Impact Philanthropy Academy say it’s one of the most helpful things they learned, so we wanted to make sure it was available to a broader audience.

Rosqueta: That’s because we truly believe everyone can practice high impact philanthropy.

What are CHIP’s four philanthropic plays?

Rosqueta: Philanthropic support typically falls into one or more of these four categories: direct services, system capacity building, policy/advocacy, and research/innovation. Like financial investment asset classes, these categories often reflect different levels of risk, time frames for results, and social impact returns.

For example, if you are a donor or professional grant maker who wants to improve literacy, you might fund a tutoring program, providing help directly to children who may be at risk of not reading at grade level. As long as what you’re funding incorporates evidence of what we know helps kids read, you’ll be able to see that impact with certainty in a relatively short timeframe.

But go to the other end of the spectrum, where you’re trying to figure out a new vaccine or a new technology that will reduce carbon emissions. For that kind of innovation, you’re not relying on an already known, evidence-based practice. The reason we were able to have a COVID vaccine is because, for decades, people were working on research related to the development of vaccines for novel viruses. Along the way, there’s a lot of failure. So, unlike the tutoring program, for a research/innovation play, there is far more risk, failure, and time involved before success. But there is also the opportunity to contribute to something game changing.

Understanding the four plays helps donors and grant makers recognize the tradeoffs involved in funding different things. All four plays are equally valid paths to impact, but they require different levels of patience, risk tolerance, and appetite for collaboration.

Andrews: That’s another reason why funders might choose a portfolio that includes multiple philanthropic plays. For example, funders focused on early childhood education might fund a nurse visitation program for babies and their mothers. That’s a direct service play that will improve the lives of participating families. But public funding is also one of the most important factors affecting early childhood, so funders might also support efforts advocating for investments in public education. Policy change is a longer-term investment, but it has potential to impact a whole city or state.

The world has changed quite a bit in the last 20, 30 years. What's next in the world of philanthropy? What are the trend areas?

Rosqueta: Philanthropy both reflects and contributes to changes in society.

Technological advances, an erosion of trust in institutions, and an increased concentration of wealth and power are all societal developments where philanthropy has a role to play.

For example, the internet, smartphones, and other technological advances dramatically improved access to information. However, they also disrupted the journalism industry in ways that now leave thousands of communities without access to reliable news and information about the communities where they live and work. Multiple frameworks used to assess the strengths of democracy continue to point to a growing decline in trust of institutions and increased polarization. And the increased concentration of wealth seems to be reflected in who is giving to nonprofits. While individuals—not foundations or corporations—continue to account for the largest share of philanthropy to nonprofits, the percentage of U.S. households who give has shrunk, and ultra-high-net-worth donors account for a disproportionate amount of those individual gifts.

At CHIP, we’re focused on philanthropy for social impact so the question is, ‘What role can philanthropy play to address the harms that may be caused by these developments so that communities are healthy and thriving?’

Some of the ways philanthropy is doing that is by looking at how new technology and AI can be used to better identify needs, source helpful practices, make sure tools are being used ethically and that communities aren’t being left out.

From CHIP’s We the People guidance, we know that philanthropy has been investing in new models for local news and information and community engagement. Those efforts can go a long way to prevent increased polarization and rebuild cultures of civic engagement.

And groups like the Generosity Commission are working to understand the decline in philanthropy to nonprofits and to foster increased generosity through volunteering and everyday giving.

These are just a few examples of how philanthropy can address the limitations of business and government. Unlike the business world, it does not have a goal of returning a profit to its owners. And unlike government, at least in a democracy, it can’t be voted out. That mean that philanthropy is the sector that can go where government and business can’t. At its best, it’s society’s engine for social impact. That’s the goal.