Katherina Rosqueta, the executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, a University of Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, is focused on equipping donors — even average ones — with the tools to make informed philanthropic decisions. We spoke to Rosqueta about what high impact means, and why making a difference starts with the end result.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
The Center for High Impact Philanthropy offers donors ‘actionable guidance.’ Can you explain what that means?
One of the problems in philanthropy is that lots of people want to make a difference, and there is more and more information out there. But it’s really hard for most people to understand, among all the ways to do good, which ones really matter. The role of the Center is to unlock silos of knowledge so that everyone can use them.
What are the some of the benefits of being university-based?
The Center for High Impact Philanthropy was started in 2006, and as far as we know, we remain one of the only university-based centers providing philanthropic guidance to the public. We are getting other universities from around the world looking at our model.
A university is such a good home, because if you look at any of the social impact issues, you need a multidisciplinary approach. A university setting is the best way to get that quickly.
What changed in the world of philanthropy that made it necessary for third parties to guide the interests of donors?
In almost every aspect of our lives, we keep getting more and better information, but not so much in philanthropy. In partnership with the School of Social Policy & Practice, we said, ‘Why is all this great knowledge about the nature of the problem, including what works and what doesn’t, not getting into the hands of donors?’
Secondly, the nonprofit sector had matured in such a way that it was no longer viewed as being made up of ‘mom-and-pop’ organizations. There was a professionalization of the sector, which raised its visibility and leadership.
These are two of the factors that made the timing right and are the genesis of the Center. Our purpose is to help donors cut through the noise, so that they and the nonprofits they support can get to the impact they seek faster and more confidently. That’s what we do.
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What should average donors be doing when they approach personal philanthropy?
For most donors, it’s very hard to make a difference, if you’re not yet clear on the difference you want to make.
Whether you have $50 or a billion, first be clear: What is the change in the world you want to create, and is it meaningful to the people you want to help? Once you answer that question, I can assure you that there’s good information out there.
The first step for any donor is to start with the end result, and do a little bit of research. Because if you’re not clear on what you’re trying to get to, it’s sort of like taking a road trip and choosing the rest stops before you know where you’re going. There a lot of work to be done, so why get hung up on which cause is best? Choose one and start acting on it.
What are the characteristics of high impact philanthropy?
The first characteristic is that it is concerned with improving the lives of other people. Secondly, it is informed by the best available information, because that’s the only way you can avoid reinventing the wheel. The third feature is that it is always linking considerations of cost and impact. The fourth is a commitment to continuously learning and improving. High impact philanthropy is a practice. It’s a journey, not a destination. It’s a commitment to continually learning so that you can make as big a difference as you can.
Crowdfunding is an emerging trend. Can you talk about the effect it has on the philanthropic process?
One of the advantages is that it can expose people that are not geographically close to you, and whom you may not know well, to a project or an idea that is quite concrete. That is the beauty of technology. It has a scale and reach that physical interactions do not. It can extend your reach and engage a different cohort of people.
It can give donors a feeling of supporting something specific — there’s a way in which successful crowdfunding campaigns are designed that give donors and potential donors a strong sense of what their money is going to buy. As for disadvantages, there may be lots of priorities that don’t lend themselves to a crowdfunding appeal.
At the nonprofit level, like any new engagement or fundraising tool, it takes some capacity, and most nonprofits are stretched. Crowdfunding is not for every project, and though it can be helpful, it’s not going to be for every donor.
I view it as another tool for community and donor engagement. If a nonprofit has projects well-suited for that platform and it’s not a drain on capacity, it’s worth exploring. But like every other tool, it has limitations.
Kat Rosqueta was a speaker at TEDxPhiladelphia 2014, where she also discussed her ideas about high impact philanthropy. Her full TED talk is available below:-30-
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