Alison Powell, Bridgespan Group
Alison Powell co-leads the philanthropy advisory team at Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization providing strategy consulting, advising, due diligence and leadership support to family offices, individual donors and nonprofits.
Who are your typical clients?
Fifty percent of our work is with philanthropy, and 50% of our work is with nonprofits. We work with a combination of high-net-worth individuals and family offices that do not have extensive philanthropic staff. Some have set up a foundation, but it may not be extensively staffed, or they want to do work outside the foundation. There’s a wide range we work with; some may be looking to give $5 [million] to $15 million, others are giving over $50 million a year. We also work with large philanthropic organizations.
How do you support the philanthropic work of family offices and individuals?
Traditionally, we work over the course of six-plus months, sometimes in an ongoing way, with family offices or individual philanthropists. We help set the strategy, source and vet organizations, and help them think about how they make those decisions. If the donor is making a substantial and extensive commitment, they may hire us to advise the nonprofit about how to deploy those resources.
Increasingly, we’re getting outreach from donors looking for more targeted advice to help find, source and select individual nonprofit organizations to give money to, sometimes in the absence of a bigger strategy.
Is there a typical donor request?
There isn’t. A client we worked with a number of years ago built a whole initiative around veterans’ mental health. They built it and structured it and set it up themselves. We supported them in that process. Other funders want to understand the landscape and then figure out a way to move resources into the community.
What trends are you seeing in philanthropy?
We’re seeing a real desire for donors to work together and pool and align resources. These funder collaboratives are made up of very wealthy individuals not interested in setting up large, staffed foundations.
More wealth is being acquired across a wider demographic than ever before, yet giving hasn’t necessarily increased proportionately. Why?
The family-office structure is generally set up to preserve and grow wealth, so there are natural tensions when you think about giving it away. There also tends to be a mindset barrier about paying money to give money away, but philanthropy requires capacity and resources to do it well. Donors have a very high bar for distributing their resources — which is a good instinct but also creates a lot of delay, because there’s a sense that there will always be a better opportunity. There’s a lot of behavioral economics that push against moving resources out to communities.
What advice can you offer family offices or individuals about setting a strategy?
The question to ask is, what do we care about? The next generation can build alignment and engagement with the older generation. But when families presume that philanthropy will bring them together, it can be fraught, because people have very different interests and passions. It’s important to agree on whether the primary interest is impact, which requires a structure and managed decision-making, versus family harmony, which will be harder because different generations will have different focus areas.
Interview by Amy Guttman, who covers entrepreneurship and startups. She contributes to Forbes and has worked as a correspondent for PBS Newshour, the BBC, The Associated Press, CBS News and others.