Wendy Schmidt’s Advice for Donors
Wendy Schmidt leads her and her husband’s broad network of philanthropies, the largest of which is the $2 billion Schmidt Family Foundation which they started in 2006.
The Schmidts’ giving operation is a big one. Nearly everyone the couple hire has subject matter expertise, and Schmidt relies on this team of experts to guide the couple’s grant making. The Schmidt Family Foundation, for example, has in-house experts in energy policy and technology, international law, mining, human rights, food systems, regenerative agriculture, marine technology, and science and impact investing.
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The Schmidts’ giving operation is a big one. Nearly everyone the couple hire has subject-matter expertise, and Schmidt relies on this team of experts to guide the couple’s grant making. The Schmidt Family Foundation, for example, has in-house experts in energy policy and technology, international law, mining, human rights, food systems, regenerative agriculture, marine technology, and science and impact investing.
Most staff across the Schmidts’ giving vehicles spend a week or more with grantees at least once a year — sometimes more often — to better understand their challenges and get to know them and their work. Wendy Schmidt says she learned the practice from Paul Farmer, the late medical doctor who founded Partners in Health, a charity that provides health care to poor people around the world.
In the 16 years Schmidt has been leading the philanthropies, she has learned a number of lessons about giving:
Get to know your grantees and their work deeply over time. That way, if a grantee comes to you in the middle of a project to say something isn’t working and a course change is needed, you will have enough information and contact with that grantee to be able to shift the money to where the nonprofit needs it most.
“A lot of people don’t do that in philanthropy. It’s like, ‘Nope, you failed. That’s it. Done,’” Schmidt says. “We want to feel that if we err, it’s on the side of being on the side of our grantees, of taking their cause and really taking it to heart and being involved enough to switch course when needed.”
The “single biggest mistake” you can make in philanthropy is wasting money, Schmidt days. Money needs to be directed toward a specific goal. Some well-meaning philanthropists think a big check always equals a big impact on a charity’s work. That doesn’t always turn out to be the case, she says, because sometimes the recipients are not set up to handle large donations and end up wasting the money and not being able to accomplish the goal.
“The better approach is to listen and to understand the problem the grantee is trying to solve and then to become an instrument to help them solve it,” Schmidt says. “You may be most helpful offering organizational support or coaching or support for the organization’s communications or digital strategy. In the end, you want to help grantees and nonprofits not by giving them fish but by teaching them to fish.”
Big donors should approach giving with more humility, she says, and make more of an effort to remember that their business success doesn’t mean they’re experts on everything.
“Make as many connections as you can. Read, understand — don’t assume you know something you don’t,” Schmidt says. “It’s very tempting for all of us to say, ‘Well, I was successful, I know what this is about.’ You might not. It’s worth stepping out of your own lens and trying to see something from someone else’s point of view.”