People who want to give have a wide variety of causes for which their money can be used. But how can a donor tell that his or her money is being used wisely?

DonorsTrust[1] has published Expert’s Guide to Effective Giving, a 58-page compendium of articles[2] that first appeared in the donor-advised fund’s blog. As I noted in this appreciation of DonorsTrust founder Whitney Ball, about a third of DonorsTrust grants have nothing to do with politics or public policy. Because DonorsTrust deals with a wide range of charities, their staff, as a result, have a great deal of practical knowledge about how to give wisely.

Suppose you want to give money to support journalism. What should you do?

John J. Miller, who directs the journalism program at Hillsdale College and is the author of A Gift of Freedom, the authorized history of the Olin Foundation, looks at one way, which is to support organizations that defend free speech. If you are concerned about colleges muzzling heterodox professors, then it might be worth your time to examine the programs of the American Council on Trustees and Alumni, the National Association of Scholars, or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). If you want to support journalists more directly, many magazines and websites are either run by nonprofits or have nonprofit affiliates, including the National Review Institute, the Reason Foundation, and Commentary, Inc.

National Review roving correspondent Kevin Williamson also directs the William F. Buckley Fellowship in Political Journalism, which gives fellows a chance to write pieces for National Review and National Review Online, “facing the realities of meeting deadlines, receiving editorial feedback, and chasing leads.”

It should be a standing rule of philanthropy that giving small grants to aspiring talent early in their careers is a very cost-effective strategy. (Think of the grants of the Guggenheim Foundation before 1945.) As a regular reader of National Review Online, I can attest to the high quality of the work of many of the Buckley Fellows.

Of course “the media” is more than print publications or websites. Patrick Reasonover of the production company Taliesin Nexus offers ways donors can either give grants or perform program-related investments in film and television projects. Read the proposal for a film project as carefully as you would a grant application or a venture capital prospectus, he says, and make sure that the production crew is experienced. It’s also a worthy goal, Reasonover adds, to support aspiring novelists or short story writers, with the website Liberty Island being a good example. Discovering the next Robert A. Heinlein or Neal Stephenson, he argues, is as significant as finding a future William F. Buckley.

Suppose you are interested in foreign policy. Brad Lips, who is CEO of Atlas Network, which links free market think tanks around the world, says that he once asked Sir John Templeton[3] why he supported think tanks. “There is a great deal of philanthropy that addresses the symptoms of current poverty,” Sir John told him. “But comparatively little is directed to the more cost-effective strategy of preventing future poverty.”

For while struggling businesses in the Third World need capital, they also need the rule of law—property rights, reducing the red tape that smothers many businesses in developing countries before they have a chance to grow. Think tanks in lower-income countries, he writes, do a great deal more than issue papers. They also do a lot of the practical work that is needed to get businesses launched. India’s Centre for Civil Society helped lobby to end an arbitrarily high minimum capital requirement that prevented many startups in that country from launching. Now investors rather than bureaucrats judge how much capital a new business needs. The Lithuanian Free Market Institute successfully reduced the number of days it took in that country to issue a construction permit from 103 to 69 and to have electricity connected to a new business from 95 to 75.

A final section of the book offers donors practical suggestions. One of them involves sunsetting, or making sure that your foundation has a firm term limit. Here Ingrid A. Gregg, a senior program officer at the Bradley Foundation, has experience few other people in philanthropy have: she was president of the Earhart Foundation, which closed its doors in 2015 after a 76-year run as a perpetual foundation.

She reminds her readers that the process of closing a foundation is not easy, and that unexpected pitfalls will easily arise. “No matter how well a sunset process is defined and executed,” she writes, “there will be many unexpected developments along the way. Some may arise from the ever-evolving and sometimes hostile regulatory environment. Others may flow from simple human frailty. A nimble, steadfast commitment on the part of everyone executing the plan will likely serve donors best.”

Any donor interested in finding the best ways to give will find good practical advice in Expert’s Guide to Effective Giving.


[1] I have received money from DonorsTrust from three organizations.

[2] The articles collected deal with all sorts of subjects, from how to run a donor-advised fund to how to give money to public-interest law firms and organizations supporting the environment. 

[3] I once reviewed a grant for the Templeton Foundation.