Charitable giving reached an all-time high in the United States last year. However, philanthropic activity is about more than donating money; it fosters conversations among family members around values and allows individuals to create positive impact on the world and leave a legacy. Brown Brothers Harriman recently hosted a philanthropy roundtable at our New York headquarters featuring four women who have extensive philanthropic experience in both their professional and personal lives: Pamela Norley, president of Fidelity Charitable; Dianne Chipps Bailey, leader of the nonprofit organizations and foundations practice group at Robinson Bradshaw; Maureen Orth, founder of the Marina Orth Foundation; and Susan Donahue, a nonprofit organization management professional. During our discussion, the women touched on a range of topics, including trends in philanthropy, focusing philanthropic efforts and forming a mission, the rise in impact philanthropy and the increasing demand to measure results. Following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Kerri Mast: Let’s start off by talking about trends in philanthropy. Pam, what trends are you seeing in family philanthropy? Are there any specific gender differences?

Pamela Norley: Fidelity Charitable, a public charity with a donor-advised fund program supporting more than 130,000 donors in their giving, has seen a huge increase in the number of people who are interested in bringing together their families to have the philanthropic conversation. Families are volunteering and doing philanthropic planning together, and there is more passion around this. This past year, we had so much interest from donors in involving the next generation of the family in discussions around philanthropy that we sponsored a “next generation fellows” program. Younger family members spent two days together talking candidly about issues related to family philanthropy.

From a gender perspective, women are much more structured. They are more interested in having a conversation and spend more time thinking about philanthropy. Research shows that a woman is much more likely than a man to have talked to her financial advisor about integrating philanthropy into financial planning. It’s front of mind for women, and it’s important that financial advisors are involving women in the conversation.

Dianne, given your engagement with the Lilly School of Philanthropy Women’s Philanthropy Institute, do you have a perspective on the gender differences between men and women?

Dianne Chipps Bailey: We’ve known anecdotally that women give more, but now we have research to back up our understanding. We see women engaging in more high-touch philanthropy, often where volunteer service is a precursor to giving. A shining example of this is in the women’s collective giving grantmaking movement.

The Institute also has conducted research around why women are more inclined to give to organizations that support women and girls. It found that women’s experiences of family drive investments in organizations that support children. Likewise, their own challenges drive them to get involved in organizations that protect women from domestic violence, promote pay equity or similar causes. The research also bears out that women invest in these organizations because we understand the return on investment – if you provide education, healthcare and capital for new businesses to women, that not only translates to family, but extends into entire communities.

Many donors want to make an impact but struggle to narrow their focus and identify their mission. Maureen, please tell us about how you discovered your mission.

Maureen Orth: I think that your mission happens accidentally sometimes, no matter how well things are planned. My story began when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Medellin, Colombia. I was doing urban community development in a poor barrio, and after two years, the people in the small community in the mountains above asked if I would help build their first school. I led them in building the school, and they named it after me. I left Colombia after my Peace Corps service ended and would go back to visit. When I went to visit in 2004, I met with the new Secretary of Education, and he said, “These kids don’t have any chance to compete in the 21st century unless they know technology and English. Would you help us make your school the first public bilingual school?” I said yes, and that’s how my mission started.

When you’re choosing what to do, it’s important to realize what grabs you. It should be about where you feel that you can give most. It’s great if you have a passion, but if it’s less than a passion, that’s OK too. You have to decide what excites you the most so you can continue to grow with it. When my husband died suddenly of a heart attack, I was asked to be a spokesperson for heart disease, but my heart was already with these children in Colombia because that work aligned with my interest in poverty and children’s education. The other important thing it did for me was act as a vehicle to go from darkness to light – to leave the mourning and accept a big challenge where there were many rewards, even if they weren’t all at once.

My advice is to do what’s best for you while you’re also able to give to others.

Susan, do you have any advice for donors who are looking to focus their efforts?

Susan Donahue: I agree that you have to go with what resonates with you. You also need to do your research and make sure you are getting involved with an organization that’s going to have the level of impact you’re seeking. What excites me is being strategic and driving systemic change, but I actually stand in awe of the people who are on the ground making it happen.

Your focus can happen at any level. Poverty alleviation was a great driver of my interests. I grew up surrounded by wealth and went to a good public high school, but my family was poor. I was lucky to have the opportunity to pull myself up by the bootstraps, but I also realized that many people don’t even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. That became my life’s work. And it’s not that clear cut – you evolve into it. I was looking for the most powerful levers to pull in this work and ended up at the nexus of healthcare and poverty because people are very vulnerable when they’re in a healthcare crisis; that is a situation where you can really convince someone to make life changes.

Follow what is meaningful to you, and be very thoughtful about the organization. Then, find a level that resonates with you where you’re able to do the most.

Is it helpful to have a philanthropic mission statement, Dianne? What is its purpose?

DCB: It’s essential that you have a philanthropic mission statement, and it often comes to you organically with a bit of serendipity and life experience. The more visibility you have, whether because of affluence or celebrity, the more important it is that you have that mission statement. I love watching my clients come into their own as philanthropists knowing they have such power and influence.

The other reason you must have a mission statement is that it enables you to say no gracefully. The more visible you are, the more requests you get. You need a way to separate those out to ensure that the personalities of people asking don’t end up becoming the decision driver – the philanthropic impact is most important.

A philanthropic mission statement does not create handcuffs. You still have control over your philanthropic destiny and flexibility to deviate. I designate a pool of money each year as a “charitable slush fund” for this purpose – when it’s gone, it’s gone!

We’re hearing so much about maximizing philanthropic impact. Pam, can you talk about the considerations that come into play when you’re thinking about a strategy for measuring and maximizing impact?

PN: We start with making sure people have their mission statement so they stay focused and are effective. Then it’s about creating an action plan. If you decide you want to focus on a particular issue, you need to do your research and deeply understand all of the organizations around that cause, as well as solutions. Once you have the big picture landscape, you can pick the right nonprofits. The final part is amplifying the impact. We’re seeing a growing need to bring together people who care about a particular issue and use the power of that community to drive more impact.

Ultimately, to drive the impact you’re looking to achieve, it’s about having a mission statement, conducting deep research on your chosen areas, finding the right nonprofits and then being committed and amplifying the message around what you’re trying to accomplish with others.

On this idea of impact measurement, how can programmatic charities provide data to donors without taking on undue burden?

MO: The trend now is to be entrepreneurial and account for every penny that is given. I have about 45 people working in my foundation; we are mostly out in the field doing the work and have a small percentage of administrative to programmatic. We don’t have time to answer everybody’s questions about every penny. If charities are transparent on their websites, publish their financial and impact numbers and have a good ratio of administrative to programming, it ought to be enough in most cases.

SD: I want to add something on the metrics: People care about what’s being measured. They don’t just want to know the numbers and finances. They care about how many individuals you are impacting, and on some of the more complex things, they care about the longitudinal impact. There are also different levels of impact that people care about, so it can be very complicated and time-consuming.

One example I’ll give you is about an organization that I have the privilege of chairing the board. We were spending a grant that we received, and about one-quarter of the way through we realized that our approach was not going to have the highest impact on what we’re trying to accomplish, which is addressing the social determinants of health. We went back to the donor and said that we were going in the wrong direction and measuring the wrong outcomes. We were allowed to shift, and the outcomes for everybody were much better. Both donors and organizations need to be sure that they’re applying money and resources to get the best outcomes possible, and sometimes you have to step up and say, “We’ve learned since our last conversation.”

What do you think is contributing to the rise in impact philanthropy?

PN: At Fidelity Charitable, we’ve conducted a lot of research around this topic, and so much of it is just transparency resulting from technology. People can research all of an organization’s information on its website. We sometimes have to help nonprofits understand that there must be a level of transparency because of the technological world that we’re living in and the information people are demanding from nonprofits around their causes, staff, funding, resources and results.

In addition, we have found that millennials are incredibly generous. They give less than baby boomers do annually, but they make spontaneous decisions, and when they want to help a cause, they want to do it immediately. You need technology to enable that to occur. So that’s a challenge for both organizations and nonprofits that have to meet that demand while simultaneously trying to solve major issues and have an impact.

MO: I would add that people should get on the ground and go visit if they’re interested. There’s nothing like seeing how it unfolds with your own eyes. There’s a movement now called voluntourism where you visit a place and participate in volunteer activities.

SD: Organizations like GuideStar are very useful, but they don’t tell the whole story, and I love the idea of actually going to visit. You need a GuideStar or a score to put a stake in the ground so you can begin to look into a charity, but there’s a lot more around it. Before you make major investments, you really need to understand the organization’s impact.

DCB: To add to that, if I want to do due diligence on an organization, I do not go to its website first. The first place I go is the Form 990 that is available on GuideStar.org. The Form 990 tells you most things that you need to know about the organization. It’s not going to give you the experiential piece, which I agree is critical, but it is a very important first step to weed out underperforming organizations.

As women, we have many demands on our time. Susan, how do you determine whether you should sit on a nonprofit board?

SD: I love Dianne’s theory of the slush fund. You can’t do everything, and you’re not going to have an impact on everything. My husband and I have an overlap slush fund for causes that we care about or that friends are running. We give to a large number of organizations every year, but our level of impact ranges widely. We’re heavily involved in the top organizations we care about. It doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand; it actually went the reverse for me. In most cases, I ended up on a board for something I was interested in, and when I became deeply engaged, the donations followed and rising through the board followed. For one organization, a friend asked me to join the board and help sort several things out. I was glad to do that, but the first thing I did was to put in term limits so that in a couple of years I could get off the board. You need to know where you can pick and choose. Time is the greatest commodity there is.

Dianne, can you share your perspective on allocating your time to a charity without going so far as serving on the board?

DCB: I have served on more boards than I can count, and I have chaired six boards in the past 10 years, so it’s been a period of intensive commitment to board governance as a vehicle to creating change in my community. As I look back on that decade and at the decade to come, I believe everything I’ve learned and the relationships I’ve built will help me create as much meaningful change for organizations I love by participating in strategic, focused ways that do not entail me being a generalist, which is what is required of board members – leading a capital campaign, helping with an event or helping with a strategic governance overhaul, for example. Board service is a privilege and a joy, but it’s not the only way to advance the mission of organizations you love.

What one piece of advice do you have for all donors?

PN: Get out there, engage and really commit to whatever organization you want to get involved with to drive impact. The more you steep yourself in a cause or an organization and the more you learn about it, the more you’ll understand what is needed most. You’ll discover what can really move the needle – and what doesn’t move the needle. Engagement makes the experience of giving that much richer and the impact of giving that much more powerful.

DCB: The best place to start is with gratitude. I find that if people approach their philanthropy with gratitude, they look at it not from a place of scarcity, but from a place of abundance. Gratitude is rocket fuel to move your philanthropy forward.

MO: Take a risk. Figure out if there’s something that really grabs you and where you feel you can make a meaningful difference. In addition, share your enthusiasm with others. You really need to think about how you can influence others. Whether they work directly for you or not, you should share your love for whatever you are doing.

SD: Go with what resonates for you, but do your homework too, so that you make sure it’s going to have the impact you desire. Finding what resonates will evolve – sometimes you only learn by trying different things. You don’t wake up and say, “I’m going to fix this.” You learn where the levers are and what works for you.

Pam, Dianne, Maureen and Susan, thank you so much for your time and insights.

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