The Value of the Undramatic Gesture

Excerpted from Giving with Confidence:A Guide to Savvy Philanthropy by Colburn Wilbur with Fred Setterberg, now available in hardcover from Heyday. 

From “Chapter 3: The Value of the Undramatic Gesture; Principle #3: Dare to be dull.”  

A Strategy of Steadiness

Giving with ConfidenceNonprofit executives routinely manage a dozen restricted grants and government contracts. In effect, they’re saddled with the equivalent of a dozen bosses, each specifying the percentage of their grant that may be used for lights, water, rent, salaries, and the like. It’s maddening.

Your gift of discretionary funding awarded over multiple years can help make for a saner situation. But first, you need to carefully examine your own reasons for giving.

Some donors crave acknowledgment in terms of visible concrete outcomes. A program, a playing field, a new hospital wing bearing their name. You might be primarily interested in public recognition—even that’s no sin. (Keep in mind the 2,500 Carnegie libraries still freckling the map.) If so, you may find ongoing support for a stalwart organization a hard notion to swallow. Not everybody can feature himself as the guy who paid for this year’s liability insurance or the gal who’s keeping the bookkeeper glued to his desk by stickily underwriting his health coverage. Perhaps it’s best for discretionary donors to gloss over the specifics of their donation’s ultimate end. Try to regard your contribution as a discrete piece of the organizational slab that enables the spires and bell towers to soar. In setting your own cornerstone of unrestricted support, you’re assuming the critical work shunned by most other funders.

I only wish the foundation world would devote a much larger share of its resources to general operating support. While it’s critical to support excellent programs over the years, I’m also proud of every unrestricted dollar the Packard Foundation has put into the hands of dynamic organizations who understand their needs and priorities much better than our staff and board members would ever be able to do. But I also recognize that the foundation world isn’t going to change overnight. Despite greater openness to long-term grantmaking designed to assist key institutions in establishing themselves over many years, large foundations continue to be stirred and occasionally seduced by the allure of innovation and experimentation—the ceaseless pursuit of the new.

That means individual donors can and should now step into the breach to play a significant role in securing the nonprofit sector.

Of course, the most critical task is choosing the right organization to back for the long haul. In the foundation and business world, this process is referred to as due diligence. It’s usually a time-consuming labor involving a multiplicity of steps. Foundations attempting to identify their best investments usually conduct a rigorous data analysis, peer into the overall health of the organization, talk with other funders, and then rely on their well-informed instincts.

Your own process—as with many aspects of giving—should not emulate the big foundations. As an individual donor or small family foundation, you have neither the time, personnel, interest, or need to conduct an extensive inquiry into every gift. What should concern you is the presence of the basic building blocks of a good nonprofit.

Look for:

  • A capable executive—A successful organization depends on a director with sufficient skills and dedication to handle a dozen tasks simultaneously. Keep your eyes open for brains, grace, balance, determination, and verve. Without keen vision and stable management, nothing can be accomplished.
  • Depth of leadership—If an organization is going to survive beyond the reign of its charismatic founder, it must cultivate leadership at multiple levels. In the end, leadership has less to do with any one person than with an organizational attitude that rewards initiative and responsibility, while providing opportunities for professional growth.
  • An engaged board—The trustees should set the organization’s mission, oversee finances, throw their back into the unending task of fundraising, and otherwise assist the leadership in marching towards their goals. The board should neither fall prey to micromanagement, nor regard its duties as pro forma. Membership on a healthy nonprofit board can often be a demanding part-time job.
  • The active pursuit of a realistic development plan—Your gift, no matter how significant, is only a single slice of the funding pie. For a nonprofit to survive over the long run, it needs the participation of the executive, the engagement of the board, and probably at least one staffer dedicated to raising money. Goals have to be set, charted, pursued—and then realigned to meet the shifting sands of reality.
  • Reliable financial management—You shouldn’t need an accounting background to interpret the fiscal state of your favored organization. Scan the annual budget and the previous year’s financial statement, ask about cost controls, find out how data analysis informs policy at both the executive and board levels. But make it a conversation, not an interrogation. Comprehension will emerge from an honest and ongoing exchange.
  • A compelling reason for existence—Do programs lead to the desired outcomes? Can the leaders articulate their mission beyond half-baked homilies and clunky code words? Who would notice if the organization suddenly ceased to be? Are the end results really worth all the blood, sweat, and tears?
  • The ability to grow—Does the organization remain in touch with its constituency so that it understands the changing context of its work? Does it have the capacity to adapt to new circumstances and steadily improve its performance?

To explore these qualities, you’ll need to rely on your analytical abilities, observational prowess, and sheer gut instinct—just like you do in every human encounter. Unfortunately, many nonprofits have been trained by the foundation world to respond to inquiries with a document dump. Ask for info, and you’re liable to be handed the sundry gilt-edged array of annual reports, board rosters, committee minutes, 990s, organizational charts, multiple copies of multiple proposals, and heaps of plans. You’re not going to read them. You don’t need to read them.

Genuine due diligence doesn’t result from an accumulation of paper. It isn’t an artifact or much less an event. Rather, it evolves over time as a process, an outcome of your ongoing relationship with an organization. It derives from openness and persistence. The more time you’re willing to invest in learning about any nonprofit, the better your investments in the sector will be. Your powers of perception will grow increasingly acute. You’ll be able to decode the cumbersome jargon and prick up your ears to the sound of baloney. You’ll be building a basis for good judgment by accruing the bedrock of experience from which reliable instincts eventually spring.

Cole Wilbur



Colburn Wilbur is a trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where he was the CEO for twenty-three years. Prior to that, Cole served as executive director and CEO of the Sierra Club Foundation. He is the coauthor of The Complete Guide to Grantmaking Basics.




Fred Setterberg


Fred Setterberg is the coauthor of several books about the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, including Grantmaking Basics, with Colburn Wilbur and Barbara Kibbe; Grassroots Philanthropy, with Bill Somerville; and Beyond Profit, with Kary Schulman. He has been a staff writer for the East Bay Express and has written for The New York Times, The Nation, and scores of other national and regional publications. His most recent book is Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel. He lives in Oakland, California. Visit his website at