Passion’s Place in a Philanthropic Strategy

Passion is an important ingredient in the human DNA. When channeled correctly, it can lead us to live a meaningful, virtuous life. And after spending the last five years as president of my family’s foundation, the Garcia Family Foundation in Tampa, Florida, I have met many passionate people. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that while passion motivates many of us, philanthropists and nonprofits who wish to most effectively serve their communities must also employ deliberate strategies that will lead to success. 

While I typically spend most of my time sourcing grantmaking opportunities, primarily in areas that support public policy, at-risk youth and military families, 18 months ago I embarked on a journey that led me to co-found GuidEd, a school choice navigator based in Tampa, Florida. Our foundation also committed at that time to fund the first three years of its operations.  

While this nonprofit might sound like just another startup, it is anything but ordinary for us. We have a strict policy of not funding startups, but when an unmet need was matched with the capability of several key partners, our funding was the only missing piece. The opportunity to make a meaningful impact was simply too good to pass up. 

The moral of this story is not how to convince your board to make a funding exception, nor is this a how-to guide on startups. The point is to share what I learned about how passion fits into philanthropy.  

In philanthropy, it is hard to find nonprofit leaders who are anything but passionate about their work. Most wake up every day dedicated to leveraging their organization’s programming to serve its intended beneficiaries. And I must admit, the creative ways that people do so never cease to amaze me.  

In 2002, rower Amanda Kraus founded Row New York, combining her passion for rowing and a desire to help citizens in her community succeed in sports and school. The organization now offers an array of rowing programs, including those for students, veterans and people with physical or cognitive development issues. Row New York’s after-school competitive rowing and academic club helps middle and high school students develop confidence and a strong work ethic. This program is unique and achieves impressive results.  

But for every Row New York, there are endless examples of passionately led organizations that don’t achieve their desired outcomes. Sadly, the reality is the philanthropic world is riddled with inefficiencies, and leading with a personal interest you are passionate about can perpetuate this problem. While passion is an important part of philanthropy, philanthropists should channel that passion only after identifying a beneficiary and how to meet their needs.   

Consider the following example. Let’s say you are a philanthropist or social entrepreneur whose favorite art is butter sculpture, three-dimensional art made from butter. (Yes, this is a real thing.) You might find yourself wanting to share this passion with others. Odds are, the change you make in the world will be, at best, exposing the world to this rare art form. You might open a butter sculpture museum or fund a road show. The problem arises when someone thinks he or she can use butter sculpting to reduce recidivism rates in the prison system.  

As outlandish as this illustration might seem, there are countless examples in philanthropy where one’s passion becomes the means to an unlikely end. To be an effective philanthropist, one must first identify the end, that is, the beneficiary they seek to serve, then work backward to assess their needs, and only then identify how the needs can be met.  

A year and a half ago, I didn’t know there was a need for GuidEd. In fact, our foundation didn’t even know families needed help navigating their school and scholarship options. But as we worked to identify this unmet need in our community, we put our passion for helping at-risk youth into our philanthropy. Along with our board, we put under-resourced students and their families, the beneficiaries of this work, first. We then worked backward to determine that a one-on-one coaching model was the best method to help more families utilize their state scholarship and find a school that best served them.  

Garrett Garcia is the chief financial officer of Pinehill Capital Partners and president of the Garcia Family Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting at-risk youth, military families and public policy that promotes free markets, individual liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  

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