The Art & Science of Giving

November 14, 2006 Business and Management 2 comments

I attended a talk this morning by Mr Colburn S. Wilbur, former President and Trustee of The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Yes, David Packard‘s the guy who founded HP together with Bill Hewlett. The Packard Foundation has in excess of US$6 billion of funds, and employs about 120 staff.
You may think that giving away money is probably the easiest thing in the world. Not so, according to Colburn. In fact, a key challenge is how one can use the resources of foundations to make a positive difference.
Some of the main takeaways are as follows:

Handling of Family Issues. Dynastic foundations may face challenges when there are conflicts between family members. Different generations may also have different views on philanthropy.

Establishing Mission, Vision and Strategy. This is important as foundations, just like any other organisation, need to be clear on their goals and direction. What are the key causes that are being supported? What is the due process of accomplishing those goals? If these are not established, foundations will simply be flooded with myriad requests.

Strategic Approaches. These cover areas like services, capital, research, communications, education, policy changes, KPIs, and general support.

Implementation of strategy also figures largely. How you do it is sometimes more important than what to do. Key issues include the size and duration of grants, evaluation, “thinking big”, and exit strategy.

Communicating Mission, Vision and Strategy. No point to give money if the impact is minimal and participation is limited. Key channels include websites (and blogs?), emails, press publicity and internal communications.

Continuous Improvement. Finding out if your grant giving has made a difference though surveys, meetings with grantees, and keeping your boards informed.

Finances and Staff. Who should handle investment decisions at the foundations. Also, who are the staff members that should be involved?

Values and Ethics. Giving right versus giving smart. Managing media and public attention, as well as government interest. A study around the world has shown that there are 5 main values, namely Integrity, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness and Compassion.

Sometimes foundations encounter what Colburn calls a Dilemma Paradigm. In other words, handling issues like truth versus loyalty, individual versus community needs, short versus long term, and justice versus mercy. The key to resolving these?

1) Do what’s best for the greatest number of people (ENDS-BASED)

2) Follow your highest sense of principle (RULE-BASED)

3) Do what you would want others to do to you (RECIPROCITY-BASED)

Finally, of course, is the act of making the decision. To do so, one needs to look at the 3 perspectives above and also have the moral courage to do so.

Winston Churchill himself has said

“Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.”

What struck me the most were the innovative ways of giving. For example, Packard Foundation had temporarily bidded for a piece of prime land with the intention of turning it into a public park, guaranteed a building to lower interest rates for a non-profit, and started an insurance company together with other foundations for childcare centres after premium rates went up the roof after the recent spate of childcare molest cases in the States.

Oh yes, US foundations need to distribute at least 5% of their assets every year. Their tax on foundations are only 2% currently which is a lot more attractive than the up to 52% tax rate which may otherwise apply for estate and other duties there. They also get a tax deduction for philanthropic gifts.

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


  1. Yep I certainly feel that both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have done extraordinary things with their wealth. Its a pity that more Singaporeans aren’t doing that. I read that there are now about 50,000 Singaporeans with a million dollars or more in liquid assets (excluding house).

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