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You may not have met a philanthropy advisor before, but it is a growing profession, so be ready. Emma Beeston, who’s been one for ten years, explains how they work and why they can be helpful for your organisation.

Graphic showing aerial view of people holding hands in concentric circles/a spiral


Philanthropy advisors do exactly what the title suggests – they advise people who give money on how to do that well. On the surface that sounds wonderfully simple. Surely that means a donor just tells me what they want to support, and I help pick a suitable charity for them. But there’s much more to the role than that. 

Philanthropy is often driven by personal goals and experiences, and it is incredibly rewarding to work with people who are choosing to donate their money to do good in the world. Advisors facilitate deep conversations about a donors’ values, motivations, and the impact they might want to achieve. They also assist a donor to understand the pros and cons of how to structure their giving, for example in terms of how much to give and over what time horizon. 

With the non-profit sector experiencing increasing demands alongside increasing costs, it is important for a donor to understand how their decisions are not just about choosing a cause, but how best to support those working for the good of society and the planet.

Paralysis in the face of so many options

Philanthropy presents many choices about how best to allocate your resources and where to focus your efforts. Donors might want to support the arts, but that still leaves many questions. Should they support creativity in schools, emerging talent, or increasing access to the arts? Should they encourage new initiatives, or contribute to existing centres of excellence? Should their focus be local, national or global? Is this about opera or circus? Funding museums, or launching festivals? Preserving collections or the wider benefits of the arts for mental health and a sense of community? The list goes on. 

Philanthropy advisors help people who can easily become confused - and risk becoming paralysed in the face of so many options - to become confident and informed givers.  But philanthropy advisors – just like philanthropists – come in for criticism.

If they help already wealthy people gain the status of having a name emblazoned on a building, they can be accused of perpetuating inequality rather than addressing society’s needs. Because they sit between donors and charities, they can be viewed as a barrier that just gets in the way of fundraisers wanting a direct relationship with a donor. 

‘Better giving’

However, philanthropy advisors don’t just encourage giving for the benefit or profile of donors, they encourage more giving to flow, and they aim for ‘better giving’. There are debates about what is meant by ‘better giving’ but it can be many things.

    Challenging donors if they have misunderstandings about non-profits and why they hold reserves or need overheads;
    Advocating for donors to listen to experts, those with lived experience, or those from marginalised communities and to collaborate with other funders;
    Supporting a donor to understand the difficulty with attributing their funds to a tangible change and what is realistic and appropriate when measuring impact;
    Sharing good practice on grant making to ensure that money is given in ways that better supports non-profits such as with unrestricted funds or multi-year funding.

Philanthropy advisors bring expertise and develop a relationship with a donor that allows for challenge. This helps to ensure that giving is directed to where the need is greatest. And it helps to expand how, for example, giving to the arts can intersect with issues of social justice and climate change.

Advisors are allies

So where might you find these philanthropy advisors? They work in banks or Community Foundations. Some, like me, are independent consultants, and others work within bigger advisory firms. Philanthropy advice may be an advisor’s sole focus, or it may be part of other work as a wealth manager or financial advisor. They can go by different titles such as family legacy advisor or social impact consultant. 

Once you have found them, it’s worth knowing that they can take different approaches to how they work. They might specialise in assisting particular types of clients, such as young inheritors. Or they might have expertise in a certain area, including the arts. And some will be advocates for a particular approach in philanthropy, such as ‘moonshot philanthropy’ which directs resources toward achieving highly ambitious goals or ‘community-led philanthropy’ which shifts decision-making to those most affected by an issue. 

So, although you might not have met one yet, I would encourage those working in the arts and seeking funding to see philanthropy advisors as their allies. Rather than getting in the way, they are likely to be helping a donor to ask the right questions and to give in a way that supports your work. Both fundraisers and philanthropy advisors are striving to make a living by doing a valuable job that results in a positive impact. 

Emma Beeston is an independent Philanthropy Advisor.

Emma Beeston is co-author of the book Advising Philanthropists: Principles and practice

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Headshot of Emma Beeston