Aquila Capital Partners

Austin &
New York City

3 Business Lessons That Apply To Philanthropy

Whether it’s due to honest altruism or social media optics, many company leaders go into business with the hopes of expanding into the world of philanthropy, non-profits, charity events, and fundraising partnerships. It makes sense; running a non-profit is not that different from running a business; you’re establishing a mission, setting goals, and assembling the resources to achieve them. 

For business leaders with a cause or social issue close to their heart, philanthropy sits at the intersection of business and social responsibility. Even for business leaders who may not necessarily have a cause, they’re motivated by, giving back to the community is another avenue for networking, brand awareness, and recognition. 

Too often, leaders approach philanthropy the way they might a weekend hobby: with a little strategy and no actionable goals. It’s when we fail to plan that an otherwise earnest effort to better a community falls flat, ultimately looking as if it was done with little forethought or preparation. If you want to focus on philanthropy, it needs to be more than an extracurricular activity; it deserves a high level of strategy, intention, and examination in order to be truly effective. 

Over the last few decades, my wife, AnaPaula, and I have been active members of our community. We’ve supported charities and non-profits in various ways, from hosting fundraising events to volunteering. My journey with philanthropy began with delivering turkeys on Thanksgiving day with the leader of another company. This inspired me to think about how to better integrate philanthropy into my own company. I found fulfillment in philanthropic service and developing strategies for it that are similar to those I’ve learned from my years in business. We had to apply critical thinking, approach it with humility, and remember that who we’re serving is always a top priority. 

Address the Problem, Not the Symptoms 

My wife, AnaPaula, has long said, “If we could get to the root of why people are in need, to begin with, and what the causes were in their environment, we could find a way to bring joy and opportunity back into their life. They would be able to move beyond their traumatic experiences to create lasting change.”

The same can be said as it relates to social responsibility. Let’s take something like homelessness in the city, for example. Sure, it’s incredibly generous to put resources toward a donation drive or coordinating a volunteer time-off event for employees. But that’s simply putting a bandage on a persisting issue. After the donation drive or VTO event, a portion of a city’s population is still without the basic necessity of shelter. 

Instead, think about how to address the systemic issue itself. To use the aforementioned example, fund research to better understand why citizens in your community are without shelter. Equip your teams with literature on how to speak to those who are often marginalized and looked down upon by society. Most importantly, once you have the information and know better, do better. If you know that job loss is a key factor in homelessness, find organizations that help them find employment. Give small businesses your money and patronage so they can hire more people. The best way to help the homeless is to give them a stable source of income. You can also change your internal policies to make your hiring practices more diverse for all socioeconomic groups.  

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Give small businesses money so they can hire people. The best way is to help them get a job. My wife, AnaPaula, partners with a nonprofit organization in New York called Women in Need. Their goal is to help women, particularly disadvantaged and homeless women, create safer, better lives for themselves and their families. They do this through safe housing, employment, and other critical services. 

Remember – No One Is An Expert 

If we were all honest, I think we could all admit to a time in our careers when we felt like we didn’t know what we were doing. We fumbled through the motions, made mistakes, and somehow brushed ourselves off to get back at it with renewed perspective. I’ve had to apply the same humility to community work, and it’s one of the best pieces of advice I can give others. 

Most business leaders had to confront hard truths about the world, themselves, and likely what was going on inside their organization last summer when the social justice movements reached an all-time peak in media attention and solidarity among different communities and groups. Many leaders knew something had to be done, and that change was long overdue but was far from experts on the subject of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

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And the idea isn’t to be an expert of the go-to on the cause you’re fighting for necessarily. The goal should be to learn, grow, and share the knowledge you receive along the way. As you mature in your walk toward helping others, you’ll begin to have an influential and powerful voice; you’ll begin to have the clout and credibility to make an actionable, sustainable, and scalable change.

Don’t just throw money at the issue. Invest your time wisely, but invest your mental bandwidth. Learn alongside your team and grow as an individual and leader.

Money Is Great, But a Customer Commitment Is Better

My wife was the ultimate fundraiser as an activist. As she told Leaders Online in our profile, “There was a time when all I did was raise money. I would go out there like a machine, and I would come back with commitments. I felt hollow, though, because I felt like I was in the background even though the monetary part was helping these non-profits.” 

A true visionary, she understood that building something takes more than money. It takes a motivated team and a commitment to those we’re trying to serve. Together we hope to strike a balance between trying to support those and making sure that we’re doing all we can to help those children and create a more personal connection. Just as in business, we can’t lose sight of who we’re trying to serve.

You have to be very strategic about making sure you understand your goals and what you want to accomplish with them. If you try to help everyone, you can end up being reactive instead of proactive to requests. Moves to a “boil the ocean” strategy that doesn’t help anyone. Set your goals and have a very concrete plan of how to achieve them.