Thomas J. Tierney

The new American philanthropists: Will their billions get results?

March 25, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Giving money to your favorite charity is important. Figuring out the smart way to give is essential.

By Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman

Tierney's and Fleishman's book on giving is out now.

With his $100 million dollar gift to Newark's public schools, 26-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg joined the growing number of donors who are giving large portions of their estates while still living. The idea is that these talented business titans can put their skills to work to help change the world. Since Warren Buffett and Bill Gates asked the wealthy last year to give more of their wealth to charity, 50 American billionaires have pledged some $600 billion.

But will this outpouring of money lead to real results? While success in business can finance philanthropy, it does not insure its success. Nor is there any one-size-fits all prescription for donors who are focused on getting results. But in our experience, "smart givers" often ask themselves at least three critical questions:

  • How do I define success?
  • How can it be achieved?
  • What am I accountable for?

When Don Fisher stepped down as CEO of Gap (GAP), he and his wife Doris found themselves deeply concerned about the growing education gap.

The Fishers defined success not simply as helping kids, but as finding an educational model that could achieve strong results and then scaling it. After a full year of searching and learning, they homed in on the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). At the time, KIPP was just two charter middle schools in Houston and New York City, but it fit the Fishers' standards for excellence: a results orientation, high expectations for students, and visionary co-founders. At the outset, the Fishers committed $15 million, and then much more in the ensuing years. KIPP has grown to 99 schools in 19 states, teaching more than 26,000 students. The program is now nationally recognized as the gold standard in charter education. More

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