From the book, Give Smart, by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011.

All Philanthropy Is Personal

Philanthropy is as individual as the universe of philanthropists is diverse, for the original benefactor and for the family members, trustees, and staff who may play a role (in parallel or subsequently) in giving it away.

Philanthropists can and do support almost anything, from educating school children, to saving the lives of drowsy motorists, to giving people the information they need to take action on their own behalf and on behalf of others who may be halfway around the world. This absolute freedom is philanthropy's great strength, in that it allows donors to express their individuality, creates room for innovation, and provides support for the myriad institutions and centers of power and activity that characterize democratic societies. But it can also become its Achilles' heel, when a donor's gifts are unconsidered or spread so thin that none of them ever amounts to very much.

A wealthy friend of ours realized he had fallen into just this trap when he told us that he had supported 167 organizations and causes in the course of the preceding year. (It was tax time, so the number was fresh in his mind when we had the conversation.) We asked him how many of them were causes to which he would have liked to commit his time and energy as well as his money. "Well," he replied, "you could count those on the fingers of one hand."

Moving beyond this kind of reflexive giving begins with clarifying your values and beliefs. One of the paradoxes of philanthropy is that, although it performs best when it is focused on results, almost every philanthropic initiative contains a huge dose of "me." As a result it is, and should be, substantively defined and shaped by the passions of the donor or, in the case of a foundation, its benefactor(s).

> > Bull or Bear? Vote in Our Poll

So, let's assume for the moment that you are a newly engaged donor, or a recently hired foundation president, committed to achieving social impact by exploring the kind of intentional approach we are proposing. You are looking at, literally, a world of good choices. How might you begin? A real-world example, although a somewhat extraordinary one, offers some clues.

Peter and Jennifer Buffett learned in the spring of 2006 that his father, legendary investor Warren Buffett, was going to transfer a huge sum, something upward of a billion dollars, into their family's NoVo Foundation. "You better get home, I think our life just changed," Peter told Jennifer after getting his father's fax. Though given no specific directives, they were encouraged to "focus the new funds and your energy on a relatively few activities in which NoVo can make an important difference."

In response to this unique challenge, the Buffetts decided to embark on a joint journey of discovery. "We were in the office together every single day," Jennifer remembers. "We talked to so many people leading organizations to find out what was the 'opportunity of our time.' Little by little, trickles of information from hundreds of people around the world started to merge into patterns."

One pattern, in particular, began to resonate with the Buffetts' own values and beliefs: the imbalance of power between men and women around the world. As Jennifer describes it, "In Africa or India you really see that men have the power and the dominant position, while women do not. And yet women are saddled with the burdens of holding families and communities together." These observations and experiences eventually led the Buffetts to focus the NoVo Foundation on "empowering women and girls as the primary agents of change."

Having chosen an issue, they began by making significant grants to experienced, well-run organizations focused on the status of women and girls, such as Women for Women International and the International Rescue Committee. As they learned more about the field, the Buffetts increased their level of commitment even more. In May 2008, the NoVo and Nike foundations jointly announced a combined $100 million investment in the "Girl Effect," aimed at helping the 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries bring social and economic change to their families, communities, and countries.

This investment has already begun to show results. For example, the Berhane Hewan initiative, located in a region of Ethiopia where 43% of girls are married by age 15, has helped 11,000 girls (97% of the participants) stay in school and delay marriage. Safe and Smart Savings has given 23,000 Kenyan girls access to savings accounts and financial education, thereby offering them a way to begin building an asset base and developing their economic independence. Through the Girl Effect, and other strategic initiatives focused on tragic problems like sex trafficking and violence against women in post-conflict environments, the Buffetts and NoVo are making gains on the issues about which they are most passionate.

No matter how well-endowed your philanthropic activities are -- even if you are fortunate enough to have a billion dollars in the bank! -- the number of good things you could do will always be greater than the resources you can bring to bear (not just dollars, but also your time and influence). The level of need at home and throughout the world is enormous, even overwhelming. New, urgent, or exciting opportunities arise continuously. And, of course, once people discover that you are inclined to be generous, the flow of requests for help arriving on your doorstep will increase dramatically.

It is impossible to invest significantly in a great many things at once, however. This is the trap into which our friend (and a great many other philanthropists) regularly fall. It's not so much a question of making a "wrong" choice as it is of failing to make a choice in the first place. The temptation to do everything and satisfy everyone may generate accolades, but it rarely generates results.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.