Strategic vs. Checkbook Philanthropy

Matthew Gorelik - Strategic vs. Checkbook Philanthropy

Originally published on

Philanthropy is a broad term. It encompasses multiple different aspects of giving and many methods in which to do so. Because of the term’s overarching nature, there’s a common misconception that all philanthropic efforts are equal. This is not true.

The field of philanthropy can be broken down into several different subcategories, each with its own definition and purpose. Social discussions have done an excellent job of differentiating corporate philanthropy from its counterparts, but it has been less accommodating when discussing specific initiatives and charitable methods. Specifically, it has been remiss in distinguishing between strategic philanthropy and checkbook philanthropy.

Strategic Philanthropy

This particular branch of philanthropy is highly quantitative. Participants engaging in strategic philanthropy often conduct significant amounts of research before determining where and how to allocate funds. They choose a goal, distinguish success indicators, and document progress. The entire process is extremely measurable.

Because of its quantitative qualities, this particular concept is popular amongst corporate philanthropists. It provides companies with actual data that they can then broadcast to employees, consumers, and investors.

Similarly, strategic philanthropy can be an attractive concept to modern donors as it allows them to gauge their own personal impact on a specific cause. Measurable evidence of “doing good” is desirable in a society that feeds on results and gratification. We can take strategic philanthropy one step farther and apply it to personal goals. Assessing factors like “what worked well” and “how satisfied were you with your contribution,” helps individuals to better plan for their future philanthropic endeavors. It stands to reason that the more satisfied a philanthropist is with their efforts, the more likely they are to continue to engage.

Checkbook Philanthropy

Unlike strategic philanthropy, checkbook philanthropy requires very little thought or effort. Extremely common amongst the general public, checkbook philanthropy is the term that applies to any donation that requires little foresight or follow-up on either part. Direct mail funding requests, seasonal collection tins, and school fundraisers often fall into this category.

This branch of philanthropy is often criticized for its lack of data on direct impact and the ad hoc feeling about giving that it seems to establish. Often the donation amounts are relatively small, making it hard to identify exactly what your specific funds were used towards.

Also, checkbook philanthropy fails to create a connection between the donor and the cause. There tends to be very little emotional investment associated with these donations which makes it difficult for the requesting charity or foundation to build relationships and solicit repeat engagement.

That being said, both strategic and checkbook philanthropies are great ways to get involved in the field. Start with whichever method you have the time and funding for. You can always switch avenues, and there is certainly no rule saying that you can’t try both.