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High Integrity Philanthropy: Building Legacies that Stand the Test of Time

If anything has become apparent in the oft-confusing impact sector, it’s that the very notion of philanthropy is in flux. Legacy “feel good” philanthropy is obsolete, but the “new normal” has yet to be established. 

What we do know is that the next wave of philanthropy must take a fully-burdened approach to impact evaluation and foster a high degree of trust with those working in the trenches, driving society forward. At Altruous, we call this High Integrity Philanthropy. 

Much like Active Citizenship, High Integrity Philanthropy demands more effort, intellectual curiosity, and rigor from each of us. It requires us to transcend the dogmatic practices (overhead questions, anyone?) that have held impact work back for generations and evaluate our giving from 30,000 feet. We must examine all possible outcomes and unintended consequences, and conduct granular science-based calculations that address causation. 

Ultimately, it’s up to each funder to determine how they will operate, but here are a few guidelines to help ensure your organization’s legacy stands the test of time.

Your Giving Truly Must Stand for Something

This point may seem self-evident. However, it is anything but. Truly standing for something requires clarity of purpose, discipline, and the willingness to take courageous action, even if it means risking criticism from less-informed parties.

Rooting your philanthropy in integrity requires a strong culture that guides and inspires your key stakeholders, and it creates a high standard of excellence in turn. This can take years to fully establish and refine, but taking the first steps is easy:

  1. Define your ethos. A strong ethos can be as simple or robust as you want it to be. Key components include a clear mission statement, vision for the future, core values, and BHAGs. Your ethos is crucial because it underpins everything your organization does when it is well-defined, internalized by your team, and continuously reinforced by leadership.

  2. Establish clear boundaries and principles for decision-making. Define what actions, initiatives, and behaviors your organization should participate in, which it should not, and how it should endeavor to carry out day-to-day work. Then set up guidelines, processes, policies, and incentives to support your team in staying aligned and on course.

  3. Get stakeholder feedback and buy-in. Make sure the ethos and policies resonate with your team and the communities you’re working to serve. Periodically refine and improve them based on their feedback. It’s important that everyone agrees to the final product and commits to embodying it in everything they do as part of your organization. 

Together, your ethos and operating principles make up a powerful operating system (OS) to propel your organization forward. Need help developing your ethos and operating principles? Click here to download Altruous’s FREE OS Creation Worksheet.

Avoid the “Best Intentions” Trap

Historically, philanthropists saw giving as an inherently virtuous act that helped solve the world’s problems. With the vast quantity of information and measurement strategies available today, we know that the path to genuine impact goes far beyond good intentions. 

It's not just about the act of giving; it's about thoughtful execution, exhaustive research, quantitative and qualitative evaluation, and the relentless pursuit of meaningful change. The fact is, there are countless examples of well-intended philanthropy that actually worked against the stated mission of the organization. Here are a few examples…

The Shocking Truth Behind Scared Straight

If you were a child of the 70s or 80s, it’s a good bet you’ve heard of Scared Straight. For those unfamiliar with the program, Scared Straight took kids deemed to be at risk of embarking on a life of crime and gave them an up-close look at life in the criminal justice system. 

The program brought its participants into jails and prisons to introduce them to inmates in the hope that they would literally be scared straight — enough so that they would pursue lives within the boundaries of law, order, and civilized society. 

Millions of dollars and tons of positive media attention went into supporting the program. However, longitudinal studies revealed that those who participated in Scared Straight programs were more likely to pursue a life of crime than peers who did not. 

Not only did Scared Straight and programs like it fail to deter criminal behavior, but they actually encouraged it by demystifying and inadvertently glamorizing criminal behavior and life within the penal system. 

Celebrity Philanthropy Gone Wrong

We all like hearing stories of celebrities we admire doing impact work around the world. However, celebrity philanthropy can be just as susceptible to the Best Intention trap (if not more so) as other forms of philanthropy. 

One notable example is Madonna’s early efforts in Malawi, where accusations of mismanagement and squandered resources marred the pop icon's initial venture into philanthropy. While Madonna's commitment to the region remains steadfast, and her approach has improved significantly, her early missteps are a stark reminder of the pitfalls that await those who fail to heed the complexities of effective philanthropy.

Oversights of International Food Aid Programs

Food insecurity is an easily relatable issue, and efforts from federal programs like USAID that seek to feed hungry people in the developing world seem at face value like something we all can and should rally behind. 

However, studies show that some of these programs, while solving acute short-term problems, can inadvertently foster dependency cycles and undermine economies. By flooding markets with free food supplies outside of the area, these programs can suppress demand for locally-grown produce, jeopardizing the livelihoods of local farmers and perpetuating reliance on external aid.

The lesson is clear: Good intentions aren’t enough to create a positive social impact and, in some cases, may actually be counterproductive. Without inclusive stakeholdership, participatory design, and a complete understanding of the cultural, environmental, and economic context around the issue area, paired with rigorous measurement and evaluation practices, seemingly positive social impact programs can harm the people they aim to support.

Seek out Experts and Let Them Guide You

Today’s social and environmental challenges can be extremely complex. These situations are impossible to address without exhaustive research, deep insights, and the active involvement of the directly affected populations. 

As mentioned above, incomplete information can be dangerous and lead to unintended harm. But you can avoid the Best Intentions Trap by taking the time to do the following:

  • Seek the advice of experts who understand the intricacies of the cause areas that align with your mission. 

  • Gather as much information as possible and corroborate it with independent data sources. 

  • Learn about the best, most innovative, and promising approaches to solving the issues you care most about. 

  • Identify organizations that align with your focus, and have the expertise and human capital necessary to deliver their programs effectively. Then trust them to execute well and compensate their teams fairly.

Lastly,  ensure that you’re genuinely supporting your prospective grantees and not the other way around. 

As a funder, it can be tempting to influence organizations to adjust their programs to more closely align with your specific mission. It’s equally tempting for some beneficiary organizations to create or adapt programs to qualify for specific grants — even if it means deviating from foundational strategies or making operational sacrifices to pursue meaningful funding. 

Giving with too many strings attached can introduce inefficiencies that reduce an organization’s effectiveness or, in extreme cases, lead them away from achieving their most important objectives.

Altruous Is Here to Help You Achieve High-Integrity Philanthropy

Building a high-integrity giving program takes more than good intentions and a noble cause. At Altruous, we understand the complexities of effective philanthropy and are here to help guide you toward more impactful giving. 

From streamlining the discovery process, to navigating the intricacies of measurement and evaluation, to seamless gift management and accountability, we're committed to supporting you every step of the way.

Visit for more guidance, resources, and support. Together, we can reimagine philanthropy, realize a world where compassion and action intersect to transform lives, and start conquering the urgent social and environmental challenges we all face today.

Contributed by:

Mike Spear

Founder & CEO, Altruous


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