Tom Tierney s Conversations with Remarkable Givers

A special Q&A with Tierney and videos from his most recent Give Smart project

In November, the Bridgespan Group launched “Conversations with Remarkable Givers,” a new series of candid video interviews with more than 60 leading donors, including a number of Giving Pledge signers and Forbes 400 members. Several of those interviewed—including Eli Broad, Desh Deshpande, Roger Hertog, Bernie Marcus, and David Weekley—are well-known to Philanthropy readers. In fact, 20 of them have been featured in our pages. Bridgespan president Thomas Tierney recently spoke with Philanthropy about the videos, which can be viewed at

PHILANTHROPY: Who needs to see “Conversations with Remarkable Givers”? Who is your desired audience?

MR. TIERNEY: Anyone actively involved in giving money away, especially substantial sums of money dedicated to achieving results, will benefit by exploring these videos. That includes donors, their families, and foundation leaders and trustees. The interviews stimulate, educate, and inspire in ways that listeners can customize to their personal circumstances.

PHILANTHROPY: Do any of the donors you interview speak candidly about failures in their philanthropy?

MR. TIERNEY: Almost everyone discussed the struggles inherent in philanthropy aimed at generating results for society. Complex social issues, unproven strategies, imprecise measurements, scarce resources, and a need for productive collaboration all enhance the degree of difficulty. The candid and rigorous nature of the interviews indeed prompted many mentions of failure—and thus having to learn and adjust one’s philanthropy over time. Philanthropy’s Achilles heel is indeed “satisfactory underperformance,” that most insidious and pervasive form of “failure” in which donors may feel good but, in reality, results are limited.

PHILANTHROPY: Did you see any patterns or themes emerging throughout the conversations?

MR. TIERNEY: Despite the diversity of our givers, a few powerful patterns—highly consistent with Bridgespan’s prior research and work across hundreds of consulting projects—weaved through their comments.

Increasingly, donors are orienting their giving toward achieving impact. Donors are aggressively “giving while living” and not relying on perpetual foundations. Their giving includes investing time and exerting influence; our research suggests that these non-monetary investments are at least as important as the money they give in generating results.

We also found that high personal engagement, and a focus on results, cause donors to be more rigorous, strategic, and disciplined—translating into making bigger bets over longer periods of time.

Similarly, as more donors with diverse backgrounds become engaged, they bring with them innovative ideas and practices, from impact investing to the application of technology toward social change. The level of dynamic experimentation is stunning.

PHILANTHROPY: Did anyone offer what you thought was bad advice?

MR. TIERNEY: Bridgespan was exceptionally careful about who we interviewed, what questions we asked, and what content we selected to put online, all with an eye toward providing good advice to givers. That said, given our rather extensive experience, we can say with relative certainty that “bad” advice would suggest to delay one’s philanthropy (make it solely a retirement activity), dabble (spread resources around in an undisciplined and unfocused manner), and dream (fall prey to wishful thinking and happy talk, while avoiding brutal facts and rigorous strategic thinking).

PHILANTHROPY: If you could impart only one lesson from these videos to an emerging donor, what would it be?

MR. TIERNEY: Almost universally, the response was “don’t wait”—get involved, experiment, learn. You will find the effort to be deeply fulfilling and society will be better off because of your contributions. Bridgespan’s single lesson is this: the natural state of philanthropy is underperformance—if you care about results, do what it takes to “give smart.”

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