Catalytic Women Expert Interview: Kat Rosqueta on High Impact Philanthropy

Originally published on the Catalytic Women blog. Catalytic Women offers tools and training to donors, investors and advisors who aim to align their philanthropy to their values.  While their community is diverse, Catalytic Women recognizes the importance of empowering women to engage as leaders in social impact.

CW: What are some emerging trends that you see in high impact philanthropy that excite you?

KR: It’s not so much that we see trends specifically in high impact philanthropy, since many characteristics of high impact seem to be evergreen, but what’s most exciting to us as we look across the donor landscape are two-fold: the growing interest in high impact philanthropy, particularly with this emerging generation of Millennial donors, and also the increasing number of tools and resources that are available to any donor who is interested in having more of an impact with their giving.

CW: Millennials were the topic of our newsletter last month. Say more on what you see as their emerging interests in philanthropy.

KR: Millennial donors are reporting an explicit interest in achieving impact with their giving. They’re also a generation of donors who have grown up as digital natives with the kinds of technological tools that can help them both access information that can help them to make smarter decisions, but also allows them to share what they learn quickly — sometimes 24/7 — with their peers. For many people, one aspect of giving that brings them satisfaction is the way philanthropy can strengthen connections between and among groups and, among Millennial donors, they have the technological tools to strengthen that connectedness.

CW: …What are some indicators of…impact?

KR:…For us at the Center, it always starts with an understanding of: What’s the positive change in the world you’re trying to make? Social impact is a positive change that you’re trying to make make in the lives of someone other than yourself. So there are lots of different ways to understand social impact. At its heart, it has to do with a positive change in somebody’s life. That could be things like … a family that would not have enough food, is no longer worried about putting food on the table. That’s a concrete, positive change. It could be a child is no longer dying from malaria, which is a known, treatable and preventable disease. It could be a student who, statistically you would not expect them to read at grade level and, yet is, which means they have a greater chance of staying in school because one of the greatest predictors of staying in school and not dropping out is reading at grade level by third grade. I could go on and on. When we talk about concrete social impact, what we mean is a specific positive change in somebody’s life. The good news is that there are lots of positive ways that donors are making an impact in someone’s life.

CW: There are so many stories about wealthy donors and large donations, yet giving at smaller levels can be empowering and help build confidence. How do you make an impact as an “ordinary” person or someone who wants to start at a smaller level or while we build our education? How do you start if you want to be strategic and smart about giving?

KR: The practice of high impact philanthropy has never been about the size of your gift or the amount of money that you’re giving. At the Center we often say that, if you’re only focused on the amount of money given, that’s really high input philanthropy. Whether you have a million dollars or ten dollars, high impact is always about, with whatever money you have, are you making a meaningful difference in somebody else’s life? And, yes, it’s true that if you have a billion dollars you can make more of a difference, but that also means that you can waste more money. So you’re describing an approach that is focused on, with whatever money I have, can I be smart about making a positive difference in someone else’s life? That is at the heart of high impact philanthropy. It’s about linking whatever resources you have to the results. For every sector we’ve looked at, whether a major global health priority like malaria, addressing hunger in the U.S., improving educational outcomes for at-risk youth, effective disaster relief, for every issue there are opportunities for donors to make a difference with $10, $100, or $1,000,000.

CW: What are some initial steps a donor can take? What tools are available to help focus giving?

KR: “Start with the end” is a phrase we use a lot at the Center. What is the social impact goal you hope to achieve? What’s the change you want to affect? There are lots of causes, so this isn’t about choosing the best cause. But what’s the cause you want to start tackling. Sometimes this can be quite personal. People choose a cause that’s affected them or had a trigger moment reading an article or watching a movie that sparks an interest. Define that for yourself as the first step. And, to begin, don’t get too hung up on whether or not that can be precisely measured now.

Once you’ve have that change in mind, whether it’s saving lives or reducing a preventable disease or reducing the achievement gap in education or helping a family rebuild after a disaster, whichever one you choose there are lots of independent sources of information that can help you understand what some of the best opportunities are. We have a lot of that guidance for free on the website at because our mission is to enable donors to achieve as much impact as they can as fast as they can. For folks who are interested in educational or youth issues, there are sites like those vetted by the Social Impact Exchange. For folks who are interested in international development there are sites like Innovations for Poverty Action. Our blog lists a lot of these. Start with the end goal and avail yourself of all of this free content where others have done the legwork of analyzing, for a given issue area, what do we know as the best buys out there?

CW: You have very rich content on your site. What are some of the biggest challenges the Center is trying to address right now?

KR: Two of the areas that will remain a focus — because they’re important issues and they reflect many donors’ interests — are education and global health and development. Other sectors we’ve started looking at this year are early childhood issues. We have a free online donor toolkit called Invest in a Strong Start, created in response to the growing awareness of how important early intervention is in making sure that a young person can grow up to the full potential we want for every child. This summer we’re going to launch an effort focused on preventing and treating substance abuse, a social issue that affects rich and poor families alike. At the end of the year we synthesize our sector-specific research into our yearend giving guides. We know that many families, whether for tax reasons or in the spirit of the season make philanthropic decisions at the end of the year and we want to support those decisions with analyses we’ve done throughout the year on cause-specific issues.

The other thing we’ve found is that, no matter how dedicated we are, we’ll never be able to do a deep analysis of every issue that donors care about. So we’re increasingly developing tools and education programs that will equip donors to understand how to practice high impact philanthropy, even if we haven’t looked at their particular issue.  How do you do a smart scan, so you figure out what the evidence is out there? How do you find bang for buck? How do you link considerations of time and impact? Those are the interests we hear from donors and we’re increasingly developing tools focused on those areas.

CW: Since our audience is women, and we know that women direct most charitable giving, are there any observations you want to share specifically focused on women’s roles in high impact philanthropy?

KR: Often when people think of philanthropy and philanthropists, the big names that come to mind are those of men: Carnegie, Rockefeller. This has been a bit of a disconnect for me. Yet when you look at the history of philanthropy and who’s controlling dollars, women have always played an unusually strategic and important role in philanthropic giving. Some of our largest nonprofit institutions — like the Red Cross — were founded by women who gave more than just money. There was a very high level of engagement that prompted the establishment of the institution. While this may not be true of all women donors, engagement plus money is a powerful combination of high impact philanthropy. You’re always learning and striving to have more impact. If women donors today are like their forbearers Clara Barton and others, I’d encourage women to leverage money and engagement, so they can become more and more informed about which opportunities can make a bigger and bigger difference.

There is a whole range of ways to engage: direct service volunteering, governance and board service, sharing what you’re learning with others, serving as an ambassador, asking questions. We always talk about, well how do you identify a high impact philanthropic opportunity? There are multiple sources of information — some of it is research, some from practitioners, some from peers. Sometimes the level of engagement is continuing to explore with other people. Ask: what’s going on with the issues I care about? What are the great organizations? What are they doing that’s different from other organizations working in this space? There is a level of curiosity that the best donors — men and women — bring to their philanthropy.

CW: What else would you like us to know about your journey in this field or the Center’s work?

KR: Just as I’m describing that the most impactful donors have a level of curiosity, are engaged and continue to evolve, the same is true of our Center. What I’ve described about the resources that we’re making available to donors now, we’ve learned what’s helpful because donors, and their advisors, and groups like Catalytic Women have engaged with us to make sure that what we’re producing is truly useful for donors who are focused on impact. Our intent is to support people like your readers, who are trying to get to impact faster.