Three Questions to Sharpen Your Foundation’s Focus


The importance of focus may be the most overstated truism in the field of philanthropy. Our generosity and desire to say yes, however, work against our desire to narrow our goals and sharpen our strategy. The result is often a funding portfolio of many small grants, short-term grant cycles, and multiple program areas – hardly a recipe for effectiveness.

Three reasons to sharpen your foundation’s focus

There are three primary reasons that ‘focus’ is central to any framework for strategic philanthropy:

  • Focus creates boundaries. Humans are easily distracted. Without clarity of vision, we risk dancing on the surface of issues rather than going deep. There is reason to explore and define a giving program’s vision, mission, outcomes, and impact. The framework corrals our attention to focus on our most important outcomes.
  • Focus builds mastery. The Malcom Gladwell followers among us know that in the arts, sports, or sciences, the practice of being focused is regarded as the key to developing mastery. Mastery is important because it marshals deep knowledge, intuition, and insight to solve problems. Getting good at something builds our confidence and a sense of progress.
  • Focus generates and supports curiosity. Curiosity is the engine for learning and discovery – the mobilization of an intrinsic desire to understand more. Think of your interests or hobbies where you spend the most time and energy. They have a deeply social and emotional quality that fuels engagement and connection with others.

Three questions that can help your foundation sharpen its focus

Finding focus is hard for a foundation board because deliberation takes time and patience – two resources always in short supply. The traditional tools for building focus in organizations — strategic planning, needs assessments, field mapping, mission statements — can feel overwhelming and rushed. It is best to start slowly.

Try asking one of these three simple questions at your next board meeting. The ensuing conversation will inform your next steps, and help shape a practice of strategic thinking.

  • What funding interest can we let go of in one area to increase success in another?
  • What is our foundation getting good at?
  • What burning questions do we have about the social issues our foundation targets?

Go slow to go fast

Most foundation boards think about strategy episodically. These simple questions can help your board get comfortable making it a regular part of its work.  More importantly, they can build that sense of curiosity and connection needed for deeper strategic thinking in a field of interest.

Additional reading:

Try These 7 Methods to Get to a Giving Focus

Creating Choices Before Making Choices: One Family Foundation’s Journey to Finding a Strategic Focus

Finding Your Focus in Philanthropy

Prentice Zinn, a director and senior consultant at GMA, is known for start-up work with new donors, planning for multi-generational philanthropy, guiding boards in rethinking mission and focus, and identifying high impact funding opportunities. He can be reached at