Four Steps to Donate Like An Investor

ON March 15, 2021

In such unprecedented times, many find themselves asking: How can I help? I want to donate time and money to something that will help. There is so much need. Where do I turn to find out what to do? How can I trust that my gift won’t be misused?

Financial advisors, family, friends, and even neighbors are turned to with these questions. I heard similar sentiments my whole career in grantmaking for corporations, but most often in my two decades at United Way when I worked on behalf of hundreds of thousands of donors. My answer is always to lead with your heart and choose with your head

1. What are you and your family personally passionate about? 

Some may look to personal and family life experiences of hardship, illness, or transformative events. You probably can easily think of experiences in your life that transformed your perspective and added to the list of things you care deeply about. These are how others have answered this question: 

  • A family member who died from a devastating illness drives others in the family to seek ways to support the development of a cure. 
  • Years of living in poverty overcome by training for a better job drives people to give others access to that training. 
  • After experiencing a life-changing intensive summer camp or self-awareness training, people donate to the camp so others can have that too. 

Others look to wrongs they have observed around them. What have you observed around you that leaves you wanting to do something to help? These are how others have answered this question:

  • “I know children are growing up without the advantages of my children. That motivates my family to live by the Nigerian proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’1It Takes A Village to Raise A Child, NGO Pulse We want to help children growing up in poverty in our community to have access to early education, arts, and everything else they need to grow and thrive.”
  • International travel or volunteer experiences in developing countries motivate them to seek ways to help those they have built relationships with. “I went on a mission trip to Central America and connected with local organizations that are doing so much. They taught me about the local culture and how I could help. I want to do more.” 
  • Others see or read about the ecological devastation and want to learn more and do something to prevent further destruction and improve the environment. “I have watched a number of documentaries about the effects of climate change and they always call for more action by all of us.”

What are you passionate about? That becomes your philanthropic focus. Multiple answers are common. So create your own list and see where it takes you.

2. How do you choose the way to address that passion? 

This question still calls for you to look into your heart, which provides focus as you begin to look at all the many opportunities to donate. 

Think about where you want to make a difference geographically. Think about the characteristics of the population you want to aid. And finally: think about the kind of response that makes the most sense to you. 

  • Geographic: Local, regional, in the United States or another country, or globally. 
  • Demographics: Do you want to focus on children, seniors, young adults, or others? Do you want to focus on a particular gender, a specific racial group, or cultural identity? Often people choose some combination of these demographics. 
  • Emergency or long-term impact: What kind of difference do you want to make? Do you want to respond to the crisis right now? Or do you want to intervene and stop its progress? Or do you want to work on preventing its occurrence? 

3. How do I choose from the many organizations?

Now is the time to bring in your head.

There are a myriad of nonprofit organizations working on the same focus as your passion. These organizations vary in quality, expertise, action, and focus. Choosing which one to trust with your money is similar to the Impact Investing decisions Cogent’s clients make. Look at several possible options as a starting point using these guiding principles: 

  • Performance history matters. Evaluate the organization using its public information over time.
  • Management and leadership competency is critical to any organization’s success.
  • Who else is involved?

You are not alone in this journey. Public information is available to inform these decisions. 

When your heart aches for the world, use your head to choose what to do.

Venture Advisor Terri Barreiro

Some experts can choose on your behalf:

4. How will I know my donations are making a difference?

  • Financial information: Just like public corporations, nonprofits are required to publish a financial report annually. It is called a Form 990, which is both annually filed with the IRS and made public by the organization. In Form 990 you will find financial information, revenue, expenses, balances, and a three-year financial history. It also contains the salaries of the highest-paid employees and information about who sits on the Board of Directors. 
  • Meet accountability standards: Several entities gather and publicly report on nonprofits. The oldest is GuideStar.6GuideStar
  • Standards of excellence in operating practices: Charities Review Council7Charities Review Council: Where Donors and Nonprofits Meet has a great list of operating excellence standards. They also maintain a list of organizations that meet the standards.
  • Annual achievements: Each nonprofit sends an annual report to donors and posts it on their website. Just like a corporation’s annual report, these contain the news and highlights for the year.

When your heart aches – that is the first step to making an impact. By acknowledging the ache and what caused it, you are ready to make a difference. Donations of energy and money can only be enhanced with informed investment practices. You can transform your passion into real philanthropic investments that really make a difference. 

About Terri Barreiro, Principal

Terri Barreiro is a mission-driven venture advisor and an expert in systems change. She instructs Social Entrepreneurship at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota. She is co-founder of and volunteer venture coach at Impact Hub MSP and consultant to nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

She is the founder of the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship serving the College of Saint Benedict and Saint Johns’ University and co-authored Social Entrepreneurship: From Issue to Viable Plan. She brings to her work more than 30 years of experience as a nationally recognized nonprofit and philanthropy leader with extensive experience in United Way, corporate giving, and family foundation operations. She earned an MBA and BA cum laude at the University of Minnesota and completed an Executive MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University. She has enjoyed volunteering throughout her life, currently serving on the boards of Community Giving, Close Gaps by 5, Folk School Warroad, Market Access Fund, and Impact Hub MSP. Birding and nurturing native gardens and prairies are how she shares her leisure hours with her husband.


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The tide is turning: more people are thinking about their moral, social and environmental values when they shop, play, and invest. Impact investing is going mainstream with more robust and consistent impact measurement and monitoring happening every day. The blowback on ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) makes true impact investing (which requires impact measurement) all the more relevant. Will changing how people view money change the world? Well, it isn’t a panacea for all that afflicts us but as they say, “follow the money”. Investors have power. Use yours wisely.