We’re living in a time of extraordinary challenges to our social fabric and by extension to philanthropy, the very institution designed to deliver public good and improve the lives of society’s most excluded and vulnerable members. Today’s era—marked by struggles against institutional racism and systemic inequities, ethnic strife, political turmoil and global public health and climate crises—is testing the tensile strength of societies worldwide, challenging humanity to step up and do better. It is thus crucial for philanthropists to reconsider how they seek to transform the world and reimagine how they deliver impact.
The consideration of time horizon is essential to this transformation. In philanthropy, a time horizon is the length of time over which a donor seeks to engage in philanthropic giving. The time horizon can be in perpetuity—meaning there’s no end date foreseen—or it can be limited by a predetermined end date or triggering event.
The question that stands before philanthropists around the world is whether to respond to calls for urgent action by dedicating maximal resources and efforts in the finite, concentrated term or to address ongoing and often cyclical profound social issues over the long arc of history. Since in perpetuity remains the predominant, default model for philanthropies worldwide, many donors may not realize the importance of determining a time horizon and, as a result, don’t engage in a thoughtful process. However, more and more philanthropists actively seek to disrupt established norms by using this lens to become more responsive, more targeted and have outsized impact. These donors are modeling new strategic thinking about the time horizons that best serve their raison d'être, philanthropic goals and, most importantly, communities whose lives they want to improve. These out-of-the-box thinkers are paving the way for other philanthropists who seek to sharpen their interventions and become more responsive to the realities and needs of the day.
Choosing a Time Horizon
Even when not seeking profound disruption but rather looking to sharpen strategic focus, the question of time is essential to honing thinking about what philanthropists are best positioned to do, how and by what means, with whom and within what timeline. So, how should donors think about and approach their strategic time horizons in philanthropy given the plethora of considerations, deciding voices and approaches? There’s no set formula that determines which strategic time horizon to choose. Rather, the appropriate strategic time horizon can be thought of as a philanthropy’s deliberate balancing act among considerations relating to:
- What it seeks to achieve, including the questions of donor intent, programmatic scope, acuteness of need and desired impact;
- How it works on achieving it goals, which encompasses the chosen operating model, how the approach fits in the larger ecosystem of philanthropic solutions as well as monitoring and evaluation;
- With whom it engages in implementing its work, including staff, partners, grantees and future generations of family members; and
- How progress is made and sustained, and knowledge shared, which includes financial resources, knowledge retention and legacy.
While there’s no right or wrong answer or preferred time horizon choice, it’s essential for philanthropists to move away default thinking and instead engage in intentional, deliberative analysis and choice. It’s also important to remember that choosing a time horizon doesn’t need to be a one-time event. Strategic philanthropy involves constantly revisiting past assumptions to ensure that activities still align with objectives, operating context and needs. After all, to achieve greater impact, it’s vital for philanthropist to regularly and intentionally reexamine their philanthropic time horizons and assess related implications for strategic objectives, operating models and approaches.
Olga Tarasov is director, Knowledge Development and Kalyah Ford is Senior Research, both at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors