For many nonprofits, just keeping the cracks filled in the walls can be a challenge. When 20 organizations in Dallas, Texas, USA, were invited to apply for an infrastructure grant of up to USD100,000 in December 2018, they were ready to show how they could put those funds to good use. Nonprofit leaders calculated the costs of their biggest needs, polished their PowerPoints and arrived on Infrastructure Pitch Day with high hopes.

When the event began, participants were told to look under their chairs for envelopes with numbers inside to determine the order of presentations. As they did this, an emotional shockwave reverberated through the room when people realized each nonprofit had been given a check for USD110,000 — no pitching required!

Lyda Hill Philanthropies had vetted every nonprofit in advance and decided that all of them could use a USD100,000 grant plus an extra USD10,000 for administrative needs. The recipients included educational, environmental, medical, historical and family support organizations, including a group that uses horses for mental and physical therapies.

The event was immediately dubbed #PitchDaySurprise and nonprofits were effusive in their gratitude to Lyda Hill, Founder of LH Holdings, Inc., who donned a Santa hat for the celebration.

Don’t wait for a someday scenario

Many business leaders express interest in philanthropy but aren’t prepared to do things on the scale of what Hill executed. Researching 20 nonprofits for a USD2.2 million surprise giveaway seems like a daunting task that most would save for retirement.

That’s the wrong way to look at it, according to Hill. She advises chief executives to start now and start small. Use your business savvy to make smart decisions.

Hill has been an entrepreneur and a philanthropist for decades. When she joined YPO in 1975, she was among the first five women in the organization. She has run multiple businesses, served on the boards of dozens of nonprofits, and has been appointed chairman to several. She was named to Forbes’ 2014 list of the top 15 entrepreneurs who give back to the community and has received numerous accolades for her work with nonprofits.

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“It’s fun to do good in the world,” Hill says, “and if there is anything I’d like people to take away, it’s that philanthropy doesn’t have to be a second-half-of-life thing. I started many years ago by giving Christmas gifts to my nieces and nephews of USD50 times their age to the charities of their choosing. They had to tell me which charity, why it interested them, and then I had the charity send materials to them so they could learn more and we’d talk about it. This is a way to train kids to appreciate charitable giving and for you to enjoy the research process.”

You could just as easily start this process with employees. “Start where your corporation is. Look around you,” Hill explains. “Executives are problem-solvers, so ask yourself, ‘What can I do to make something bad not happen?’”

How to choose (and help) nonprofits

“How you evaluate nonprofits is really important,” Hill says. “Don’t drop your business hat at the door; 501(c)(3) is a tax status, not a business plan. But evaluating becomes easier once you’ve done some volunteering. Try to find some time for that. You’ll begin to put two and two together; you’ll find out what a nonprofit needs and why.”

Hill typically looks closely at leadership, budgets and goals. “Is the mission viable or achievable? Are they breaking even? Are they working with the right people to make it happen? How did they choose their leadership team? It’s like setting up a business except they’re usually not trying to make a profit,” she says.

Nicole Small, CEO of Lyda Hill Philanthropies and a YPO member, also has a keen eye for evaluating nonprofits. “It’s not that different from an investor looking at a startup,” she affirms. “There has to be something you can bet on. There are different kinds of nonprofits and that means different types of investing. Do you want to engage in ‘big bet’ philanthropy — high risk stuff to change the world — or ‘sure bet’ investing? You have to decide what your investment profile is. Are you growth or operational?”

Small points out that timing is an important consideration as well. “Another thing to figure out is what stage of investor are you? At some point in your life maybe you can be high risk. At another point, you might be looking for guaranteed societal return. There are times when you can engage your company with the community. Other times, it’s easier to write a check — or maybe someone in your family will have time to be involved even if you don’t.”

Advice from Warren Buffett

In 2010, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates announced The Giving Pledge to encourage wealthy people to pledge at least half of their net worth to philanthropy. “When I did the pledge, Buffet said to me, ‘Don’t do what other people can do and will do. Do what others can’t do and won’t do,’ Hill discloses. “I like to go behind the scenes and create things. I’ve been doing that for years.”

Hill stresses that for entrepreneurs, “this can be more fun than anything else you’ve ever done. It’s really exciting to see the difference you’re making in the world. I’ve been stunned to see how rapidly we can do that with big bets.”

In that vein, Lyda Hill Philanthropies created If/Then. “If we support a woman in STEM, then she can change the world” is the vision for the new organization, which is tackling a number of issues related to women and girls pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“We generated this project out of our office,” Small explains, “and we went out looking for those doing the best work across the sector: MIT, National Academy of Sciences, National Geographic, Geena Davis, U.S. Soccer.”

The If/Then partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media led to an extensive analysis of STEM characters in TV and film. Their report, called “Portray Her,” showed that only 37.1 percent of STEM character portrayals in film and television are female. However, when girls see women in those type of roles, they are inspired to pursue related careers. This measurable phenomenon is called the “Scully Effect,” named after Dr. Dana Scully, a character on the TV show, The X-Files.

“If someone is writing a show and they need a scientist, make that person a woman scientist. That’s not hard to do,” Hill adds. “We want to inspire a generation of girls to know they can do anything.”