• Ralph Thurman

UPenn's Center for High Impact Philanthropy Helps Donors Do the Most Good


If you're from Philadelphia, or associated with the University of Pennsylvania, you may have heard about a unique and influential philanthropy endeavor at the university.

UPenn's Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) is not a charity or philanthropic organization—instead, it supports philanthropists. CHIP educates donors around the globe about best practices in philanthropy. Information and research-based guidance help donors use their funds wisely, make more strategic, impactful donations, and ultimately ensure their philanthropic contributions are not wasted.


The concept


Not too long ago, in 2006, CHIP was founded. The concept was born from a collaboration between alumni of UPenn's Wharton Business School and the School of Social Policy and Practice. Essentially, CHIP's focus is on social impact through philanthropy. Since its establishment, the initiative has come to be respected as the foremost university-based center of its kind.

CHIP seeks to help funders make a difference across a diverse range of causes, including disaster relief, racial equity in the U.S., child mortality and disease in low income countries, and more. Providing evidence-based guidance to donors interested in these and other charitable causes continues to be the vision for this ground-breaking program.

Since CHIP is a non-profit entity with no permanent funding, it’s entirely reliant on the generous financial support of doners to continue its work.

How high impact philanthropy works

In short, high impact philanthropy means just what it sounds like: using donor funds for meaningful social impact. High impact philanthropy begins with a worthy goal focused on a specific social impact. Then, it involves gathering the best related evidence, conducting a cost-benefit analysis, and making a commitment to ongoing learning about how best to achieve the goal. High impact philanthropy happens when donors use good evidence and information to guide their donations, so that their donations do the most good possible. The cash value of the donation is not particularly important—anyone can be a high impact donor, regardless of how much they have to give. What’s really critical is how and where the donor gives, and their commitment to using evidence to guide their decisions. There are four basic steps in high impact philanthropy:

  1. Identify the social impact – The donor should focus on making a real contribution that improves people's lives. This should be the primary goal. Other concerns, like honoring a loved one or securing a tax break, should be secondary considerations.

  2. Leverage the best evidence – Donors should look closely at what the data says about the problem they wish to focus on, and the available solutions. Data might include scientific research, informed opinions of policymakers, and practical knowledge about what works and what doesn't from people on the front lines of a problem, including nonprofit and charity workers, service providers, and the people they help.

  3. Analyze the cost versus impact – Donors then determine where the most can be achieved for the funds available. In other words, where is the most bang for their buck?

  4. Keep refining and improving – Circumstance can change, and unforeseen roadblocks may appear. Donors need to continually seek guidance and adjust their strategy; high impact philanthropy is not a one-and-done project.

CHIP’s method

UPenn's Center for High Impact Philanthropy aims to provide the best intelligence to philanthropists of all stripes. It also strives to package this knowledge in an actionable, easy-to-understand way. In this way, CHIP supports individual donors and charitable organizations in maximizing their philanthropic impact. The center relies on the knowledge of a multidisciplinary team dedicated to helping philanthropists make the biggest social impact. They offer their research results and knowledge base to a wide audience through their website, workshops, speaking engagements, and by supporting related events.

The areas of expertise represented by CHIP's team members are substantive and varied. The staff has impressive experience in a host of issues affecting the U.S. and the world. Specialties include program design, program evaluation, operations, and strategy.


The CHIP team also has at its disposal an extensive network of contacts such as academics, undergraduate and graduate research assistants, fellows, and practitioners. The diversity of the team's skills and backgrounds in concert with the contributions of their network helps them expand their capacity quickly. CHIP's connection to UPenn also gives it the ability to draw on and synthesize expertise from a wide range of academic disciplines.


The benefit


The benefits CHIP offers to impact-focused donors is considerable. The center independently collects, analyzes, and disseminates applied research covering an astonishing range of social causes. This means that there's bound to be helpful transferable information no matter what humanitarian objective or charitable cause a donor has in mind. Additionally, the center has the resources to mentor sponsors with a select number of projects.

Donors, grant-makers, foundation trustees, and anyone else can access CHIP's knowledge base for free via the organization's website, blog, and social media platforms. They can also enroll in the organization’s five-day online High Impact Philanthropy Academy. In addition, UPenn undergraduate and graduate students can take courses led by CHIP team members.


In closing


If you're a donor to any kind of philanthropic cause, but you're not sure if your money is having the impact you intend, consider what CHIP can offer. By learning more about the causes and problems you're trying to help solve, as well as the best way to deploy your donations, you can maximize the real-world impact of your philanthropy.

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