High Integrity Philanthropy: A Common Sense Approach to Maximizing Your Impact


Mike Spear

Co-Founder & CEO


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It’s funny how, once we’re exposed to them enough, we start to take words and ideas for granted. Since the day we decided to launch Altruous, Integrity has been a watchword, a core value, and a call to action.

As CEO and Founder of Altruous, I’ve put a lot of thought into keeping this core ideal in active practice and preventing it from fading into a background assumption. Lately, as we’ve explored new ways to introduce our ideas and our product to the public, I’ve been reflecting on what integrity means and how it relates to our stakeholders across the social impact sector.

Perhaps it’s the English major in me, but in moments like this, I always like to look up the dictionary definition and try to view it with fresh eyes.

In·teg·ri·ty /inˈteɡrədē/ noun

  1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.
    "She is known to be a person of integrity."
  2. the state of being whole and undivided.
    "upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty"
  3. the condition of being unified, unimpaired, consistent, free from corruption, or sound in construction.
    "the structural integrity of the novel"

No other idea resonates more with what Altruous stands for, what we hope to become, and the impact we aim to make in the social impact sector.

Do You Need to Reevaluate Your Organization’s Integrity Level?

Many of you may be thinking, “Of course, we have integrity. Look at all the good we’re doing!” Well, I’d like to challenge you on that and invite you to consider that, despite your best intentions, your organization may not be operating as high in integrity as it could be. In fact, it may not be very high in integrity at all.

Right now, some of you might feel a little irked by that comment, and be tempted to stop reading. That’s OK. It’s called The Backfire Effect. We all do it. It's rooted in neuroscience.

Don’t believe me? Take a moment to check out this great piece by The Oatmeal. Then, I encourage you to get curious and keep reading.

Let’s start with a little exercise. Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind. Now, go back and read the above definitions slowly to yourself. Take each meaning as a unique idea. Let each sink in, and really think about how you feel about the ideas they represent and how they apply to your work as a philanthropist or social impact professional. Be honest with yourself, and don’t worry. This exercise is just for you - nobody else needs to know.

Ask how you embody the definitions of integrity listed above. Then, ask what more you and your organization might strengthen your commitment and bring greater integrity to the work that you’re doing. Integrity isn’t necessarily a binary state – we can all live more and more in alignment with our values if we strive to.

Still with us? Great. Then chances are, High Integrity Philanthropy is for you.

If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’re open to the question, how can we increase the integrity of our philanthropic work? Here are a few principles we think will help.

Get Clear On Your Ethos

Integrity can’t exist without a clear focus and understanding of exactly who you are and what you stand for. This is where crafting and implementing a strong organizational Ethos comes in. It’s a critical tool for driving alignment, and ensuring everyone on your team marches in unison towards the same goals.

A strong Ethos provides the lens through which your team views its work. It offers clear boundaries and codifies not just your mission, but informs how your team should go about achieving its goals. Creating a straightforward ethos isn’t easy. It requires strong leadership and the participation of the entire organization.

A strong Ethos should be a living document. It should be created, codified, and formally ratified with input from all stakeholders within and around your organization. Then, you should review your Ethos annually (or as unforeseen events require) to refine and re-ratify it. Many organizations take the strength of their Ethos for granted, without doing the things necessary to make sure their teams are aware of its contents, or remain committed to its ideals.

Once your team ratifies a strong Ethos, support it by creating a set of principles to guide your organization’s decision-making. Principles tell your team how to approach decisions rather than specifically what they should do. They also encourage alignment with the ethos and facilitate mission attainment while supporting individual autonomy. In short, your organization’s principles keep everyone collaborating and marching along to the same tune.

For more on building a strong Ethos and set of principles, we recommend checking out Ray Dalio’s Principles and Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work. You can also download our free OS Development Workbook, which provides a framework for building a solid ethos for your mission-driven organization.

Seek Truth, Relentlessly

We have access to more and better information today, than at any other point in history, and it’s our responsibility to use that to our advantage. It’s also easier than ever to confuse wrong or misleading information for truth. We too often find ourselves in echo chambers that reinforce our core beliefs, where those who speak the loudest are mistaken for experts. This idea can be especially true in the social sector, where uninformed detractors can vilify organizations with dire, existential consequences by uninformed detractors.

High Integrity Philanthropy requires us to think critically - to seek original source material, gather the input of unbiased experts, and apply our own sense of reason, common sense, and independent judgment, regardless of what the crowd might be saying.

It drives us to get curious, channel our inner 2-year-old, and ask “why” while seeking information relentlessly until a clear and coherent picture emerges.

Embrace the Power of Proximity

Even the best and most thoroughly vetted data can be misleading without a complete understanding of the context in which it exists, and that requires us to get proximate.

It’s imperative to understand and collaborate with the people directly affected when building empathy and understanding, removing blind spots, and determining how programs should be implemented in order to maximize effectiveness while reducing or eliminating harm.

There are countless examples of well-researched interventions that proved useless or counterproductive because they didn’t fully understand the unique characteristics of the populations they sought to serve.

Nonprofit and governmental organizations have spent millions building latrines that failed to solve problems of death and disease associated with open defecation and built roads that failed to protect local populations from assault by local criminals. Domestically, it can be a monumental task to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens accused of crimes are prosecuted in ways that are appropriate to the particulars of the context in which the crimes occurred, such as children being unfairly tried as adults.

There’s absolutely no way to avoid these pitfalls without getting proximate. Call it participatory or user-centered design. We must gain a direct and personal understanding of the cause areas we seek to fund.

Trust the People In The Room

Once we understand our chosen cause areas at a deep enough level, it’s time to find the right teams and individuals to implement the right solutions.

Are the employees at the nonprofit organizations we’re supporting qualified? Do they have the right ideas, the right infrastructure, and strong organizational cultures that promote diversity, inclusion, and safety? Are they in a position to hire and retain top talent? Are they well-equipped to implement programs successfully, and do they have a strong culture of learning?

This is where Trust Based Philanthropy (TBP) really comes into play. We’re big fans of TBP at Altruous, but feel that it’s really a default baseline - a minimal foundation on which to build.

Once answers to the cultural and organizational questions pass muster, agree on mutually beneficial KPIs, milestones, and reporting tools, and then trust the teams you fund to deliver. Trust itself can be challenging, but with strong alignment and mutual respect, with transparency, and collaborative accountability, it’s an absolutely indispensable component of High Integrity Philanthropy.

Include Learning Cycles Throughout Your Programs

Celebrating achievements is important, but there are lessons to be learned from every initiative whether or not they’re successful, and old-guard philanthropy is notorious for taking apparent success at face value and repeating old practices without questioning or refining their future effectiveness. The highest-performing people and organizations always look for opportunities for improvement in the wins as well as the losses.

Rapid learning cycles, careful reflection, and constructive criticism produce actionable learnings drive both dramatic innovations and incremental improvements, and need to be baked into the culture of every purpose-driven organization.

We can’t afford to be dogmatic or defensive about constructive criticism. Solving the world’s most urgent and complex challenges requires a collaborative, inclusive, full-team effort. If we’re going to be successful in our missions, we must embrace radical transparency and constantly raise our own standards of excellence.

Dig Deep

It’s gut-check time. There truly is no tangible way to measure the degree to which you’ve infused High-Integrity Philanthropy into your organization. Internally, it’s a feeling of confidence that you’ve truly done all you can with what you have, but still have a long way yet to go. Externally, you know it when you see it. It’s painfully obvious when it’s not happening, regardless of whether or not anyone wants to admit it.

High Integrity Philanthropy forces us to ask ourselves:

  • Do we truly understand the issue, and the context around the issue?
  • Are we looking beyond our respective echo chambers?
  • Are we effectively measuring our impact as well as unintended consequences?
  • Are we effectively validating our data and looking for blind spots?
  • Do we know what questions we need to ask and answer once the next impact milestones are reached?
  • How might we continue to improve?
  • Have we truly done the best that we can with the resources we have?

If we can each go home at the end of a long day having answered these questions, knowing we did our best, and willing to set a new bar and challenge our assumptions all over again tomorrow, then there’s a fair chance we’re on the right track.

If the answers are no – or if the questions themselves feel uncomfortable – then we clearly have more work to do.

Operationalizing Integrity with an Infinite Mindset

First coined by James Carse and popularized by Simon Sinek in his great book, The Infinite Game, having an infinite mindset requires us to set a high standard of excellence and continuously work to exceed it. At Altruous, we wake up every day challenging ourselves to do exactly that.

The social and environmental challenges our community seeks to address are just too important, complex, and urgent, to accept anything less.  - the world just can’t wait any longer.

High Integrity Philanthropy is a call to action. It’s a daily commitment to positive social impact and the demand for a high level of excellence from those working to pursue it. It’s a constant hunger for more information and frequent “gut checks” that tell us, deep down, whether we’re really doing the best we can with what we have.

So, how do we know when we’ve made it? True adoption of High Integrity Philanthropy means we never really have. We hope you’ll join us on our journey.

Mike Spear

Founder & CEO, Altruous

Ready to implement High Integrity Philanthropy at your organization? Altruous is here to help! With deep expert analysis communicated in clear, compelling ways, and backed by access to raw impact reporting data, our platform provides all the information and tools you need to drive unparalleled integrity and efficiency in your philanthropy. Connect with our team today to find out more.

About the Author:

Mike Spear

Mike Spear

Co-Founder & CEO


Mike Spear is a social entrepreneur, content creator, and social impact strategist. He’s the host and producer of the Cause & Purpose Podcast, founder of Moonshot.co and Altruous.org. Before launching Altruous, Mike was part of the founding team at Classy.org, where he helped raise more than $5 Billion for social impact causes, en route to a successful acquisition by GoFundMe. Before that, he spent several years as a journalist and filmmaker, and holds a master’s degree in journalism from NYU.

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