Our philanthropy specialist explains why it’s important to choose a charitable focus area—and shares how he chose education.
The philanthropic world is huge. That’s why I recommend choosing a focus area for your charitable giving if you want to make the greatest impact. Personally, my focus area is education.
To help you think about what matters most to you, I’ll discuss how I decided where to focus my energies. And, given my experience as both a member of the Philanthropy Management team at Morgan Stanley and as a private citizen who cares a lot about education, I’ll share what I’ve learned in case it’s a topic that appeals to you, too.
It started when I was in high school. In a class on social justice, I was struck by the mechanisms through which we can try to break the cycle of poverty. In particular, graduating high school and entering higher education can lift successive generations of a family out of poverty—yet access to that education is really uneven.
There are so many systemic factors that stand in the way of academic success, including where someone lives. After all, most public schools are funded by property taxes, so if you live in an area with low-value housing, not many tax dollars go toward public schools. Similarly, kids might fall behind academically or even drop out of school if they need to work to help support their families. Health and nutrition also have an impact: I’ve heard of hungry kids being misdiagnosed with ADHD when they simply couldn’t pay attention because they didn’t have adequate nutrition.
When thinking about where to devote most of my volunteer time and charitable dollars, I knew I wanted to tackle some of these issues.
Simply saying “education” encompasses too much to be highly effective. At Morgan Stanley, those of us on the Philanthropy Management team generally encourage clients to hone in on a topic as specific as possible because it allows them to better leverage finite resources for greater impact.
Within education, you might have an area you’re passionate about, such as STEM (science-technology-engineering-math), the arts or something else. If so, you might support specific programs in those subjects. Other areas can also span age groups, like summer programs that provide students with free or reduced-cost lunches, even when school’s out.
There’s also educational advocacy, which lies somewhere between philanthropy and the political realm. For example, some people choose to advocate for policies such as universal pre-K or other government-funded programs. Advocates also fall on both sides of the traditional public vs. charter school debate.
To a large extent, however, the educational field breaks down by age group. I personally enjoy working with older kids, such as high schoolers and college students, so I gravitate more toward mentorship opportunities rather than, say, volunteering at early childhood development centers. That said, other people might focus more on K-12, higher education or some other niche.
Here’s a common way to break it down:
|Early Childhood||K-12||Higher Education|
such as educating parents on proper health and care for their children
activities, including academic clubs and sports/athletics
|Academic clubs and
|Academic clubs and
|Career readiness and
|Teacher support, such
as funding for supplies
|College readiness||Adult education
programs and services
|Literacy programs||Health or nutrition
initiatives like school lunch programs
It's important to take a local perspective, especially in a field like education. Local school systems often face issues which are specific to that district and can encompass social, political, and economic factors. Wading into an unfamiliar school system mired by these types of issues without engaging local administrators, teachers, and students may lead to backlash from the community and unfavorable results.
You can uncover some of the hot-button issues near you by reading local news and learning about the people who sit on the board of education in your area. For example, I live in Jersey City, where the state ran the school district for many years. Only recently did the city resume control.1 I might look into why that was the case. In some areas where young families with kids are moving in rapidly, I might ask: How will the city deal with that?
Advising people on philanthropy is my full-time job, but it probably isn’t yours. If you don’t have the time to conduct major research, you might look at national organizations that cover your focus area. For example, plenty of quality nonprofits specialize in promoting women and girls in STEM fields, or supporting teachers, or physically building schools in developing countries.
One way to find out about organizations doing good work is to solicit the opinions of teachers you trust. You might ask, “As someone who works in education, what are some ways you think I can help?”
Once you’re ready to identify specific organizations to work with, you might leverage some useful tools, such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator, online databases that provide specifics on organizations’ financials and impact, in some cases, including third-party ratings of the charity’s operations.