Is Your Philanthropy Making an Impact?

You give to charity. But how do you know what you give is working the way it should?

Measuring the impact of your philanthropy isn’t always easy, especially if you haven’t already spelled out what success means to you. When Beth Renner, National Director of Wells Fargo Philanthropic Services, and her team talk with clients about this conundrum, they find that a three-part approach can help: Get personal. Get clear. Get real.

  • Get personal: This is about homing in on family values and developing a focus that's meaningful.
  • Get clear: This means defining what success looks like to you.
  • Get real: This involves setting realistic expectations about what you can accomplish.

Keeping all three in mind can help you learn how to best measure impact. Here, Renner shares ideas on what to do next: 

Start with your definition of success. Renner says that the three-part approach is especially useful here. "What can you hope to accomplish with a certain amount of money over a particular length of time?" Renner asks. 

This can be especially important to outline in family philanthropy, when success may mean different things across multiple generations. Incorporate everyone's needs as you consider measuring impact. "You need to reach a level of mutual support, if not necessarily complete agreement," Renner says. 

Set your goalposts. Broadly speaking, measuring impact comes down to monitoring activities and tracking outcomes. In the short term, you can ask for progress reports from your nonprofit of choice that detail delivery of services, such as the number of training sessions held or meals served. 

"With more complex issues, such as improving public health, it's more about longer-term outcomes," Renner says. "Collaboration is often important, pulling in other donors and evaluating against other programs to understand what you've achieved together."

Learn from—and with—your grantees. Your ability to measure your charitable impact starts with your chosen organizations and how they track progress toward their goals. What do they measure? What's their theory of change, and what evidence do they use to show that it's working? Along with receiving progress reports, ask to do a site visit. 

"You may find that they want to produce better data, but lack the necessary funding or staff," Renner says. "Maybe you can help, or even incorporate those needs into your giving."

Gain more insights about effective philanthropy. Renner says she and her team regularly provide clients with a copy of a book written by the founders of the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit focused on helping donors create and execute strategies to accelerate social change.

"The book really walks through educating donors around strategic philanthropy, which is typically categorized that way because people are really focused on outcomes," she says. "We often give a copy to clients when we host events because it covers the steps on how to approach strategic philanthropy and making an impact. It's good information."

Make measurement an ongoing ask. Over time, your efforts to measure your impact will improve, and the information you gather will be increasingly meaningful. 

"Measuring impact is an evolution, even for the biggest foundations in the world," Renner says. "The more you work at it, the better your program will become." 

Mike Woelflein is a business and investment writer based in Yarmouth, Maine.