Getting Started:

Why Taking a Considered Approach Towards Philanthropy Matters

Kate Symondson stepped into philanthropy just last year, being employed to run her family’s charitable fund. She shares with us what she has learnt since then, providing considerations for those looking to step into the world of giving.

From one beginner to another

My family’s investment office has been contributing a percentage of annual profits to a charitable fund for a while, but until last year, their giving tended to be tentative and sporadic.

To overcome the anxieties associated with giving and to be more purposeful and impactful, they recognised that they needed someone working specifically on developing their philanthropic activities, and, last summer, gave me the opportunity to turn the passive fund into an active Foundation. Employing me was a calculated step towards responsible giving, but it was also a leap of faith, as this was my first foray into the world of philanthropy.

“I still have much to learn about what it takes to be a “good” philanthropist.”

Several months down the line, I still have much to learn about what it takes to be a “good” philanthropist, and indeed, what that even means. What is clear to me, however, is the importance of collaboration, so I offer the following thoughts to fellow fledgling philanthropists as a means of fostering community, and to be a part of the conversation. 


Build flexibility into your architecture

My philanthropy journey began in the depths of Covid-times, and at a time when philanthropists were being advised that the best way to help was to be responsive and flexible. Whilst I believe having a firm architecture is crucial for being strategic and impactful as givers, I felt it was important to be fundamentally elastic and open-minded in our approach, and so devised ways of building this into what we stand for, and how we operate. 

There is plenty of advice and tools for working out what it is you stand for, which can be particularly helpful if there are a few of you, each with their own views. Pinning down sectors, geographies, and demographics you are interested in is certainly helpful for focussing so that you can strategise.

In these especially volatile times, however, I felt that defining our focus in terms of aims – the societal changes we would like to see – rather than limiting ourselves to defined areas, would be an effective way of keeping our purpose in view without eclipsing organisations responding creatively and thoughtfully to changing needs. 


Research quietly and thoroughly 

My professional background is in academia, and I relish the countless ways in which philanthropic work thrives on thorough research and ongoing reflection. As Ewan Kirk pointed out recently in an interview with Beacon, “philanthropic giving is very tied to emotions, but it’s important to back up your choices with evidence.”

“I have the register of UK-based charities bookmarked, and this gives insight into the broad strokes of a charity’s size, operations and finances.”

The funds I give come from investments my family and their colleagues make, and it seems logical to me that effective giving would share the rigour of due diligence undertaken to ensure effective long-term investment.

I try to be mindful of the resource limitations of my sector, however, so I don’t invite unsolicited applications for funding and I do the bulk of my research before approaching an organisation, by which point I will have a thorough understanding of: the key issues; the most effective ways in which these are being addressed across the sector; and have identified a couple of bodies I would like to meet with and give proper consideration to.

The nature of being a registered charity is that there are high levels of transparency, and much information is available online. I have the register of UK-based charities bookmarked, and this gives insight into the broad strokes of a charity’s size, operations and finances. 


Ask what works best for them

There has been a notable shift in the charitable sector in recent years towards emphasising the value of experience-led understanding, that is to say, the recognition that no one can understand particular needs better than the person experiencing them. The same thinking can benefit how philanthropists give, being informed by the needs of the experts doing the work, rather than imposing your own set of criteria. 

Philanthropists tend, as one fundraiser put it to me, “to fund the icing on the cake rather than investing in the ingredients”. Philanthropy is a powerful force in elevating projects, allowing them to go beyond basic to brilliant, but ensuring an organisation’s stability by contributing to their core costs is equally vital.

By giving in an unrestricted way, that is, to the general running costs (of an activity, or of the organisation at large), you don’t just help an organisation “keep going”, you shore-up the foundation essential for innovation and development. Committing to multi-year giving, that is, to an annual payment for (typically) 3 – 5 years, similarly allows for long-term strategising, essential for a charity’s resilience and evolution. 


Don’t be driven by impact

It is rewarding to feel that you have “made a difference”, but measuring that difference is not always easy. Reporting on a “hard outcome”, (that is, a tangible, quantifiable piece of data) is often not possible, though it reads in a gratifying way: e.g. “X number of young people found employment because of this scheme”.

Expecting organisations to deliver hard data where there are other, “softer” ways of reporting impact can place unnecessary pressure on resources. You also risk hampering your own impact if you are wedded to only giving to “hard outcome” initiatives at the cost of others. Requiring an organisation to report regularly, and via a system particular to your organisation (a form, for example) demands time and energy that could have been more impactful elsewhere.

“Asking questions like ‘what have your challenges been?’ helps foster honest, constructive collaboration.”

Building relationships with organisations you support is fulfilling, and catching up on activities informally can be an effective way of learning about progress without putting pressure on resources.

Asking questions like ‘what have your challenges been?’ helps foster honest, constructive collaboration. My hope is that by considering ‘what works best for the organisations I am supporting’, I can better respect their unique sets of needs, and embed  learning and understanding into the heart of my philanthropic practice.

About the author

Kate Symondson is Head of Philanthropy for The Symondson Foundation, a charitable trust established by her family in 2017. The Foundation give to organisations and initiatives focussed on overcoming issues of inequity, supporting emotional and physical wellbeing, and empowering through opportunity. Kate has a PhD in English Literature and runs independent literary courses for adults, exploring the complex histories of cultural phenomena.