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Interview with The Center for High Impact Philanthropy: Kat Rosqueta and Carol McLaughlin

Human Services


You cannot have a conversation about impact philanthropy in Philadelphia without talking about The Center for High Impact Philanthropy (“The Center”). Established in the spring of 2006 by the dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and a small group of anonymous Wharton alumni, The Center provides independent analysis, education and other decision- making tools for donors concerned with maximizing the social impact of their funds. I had the pleasure of sitting down with The Center’s founding Executive Director, Katherina (“Kat”) Rosqueta and The Center’s Research Director, Carol McLaughlin.  Both women talked candidly and passionately about the work of The Center and the influence they are having on directing philanthropic capital towards impact.

How did The Center for High Impact Philanthropy get started?

KR: The Center, like a lot of entrepreneurial enterprises, started from a point of frustration. The founders are donors who wanted to make a bigger difference with their philanthropy. They started to think about the part of their portfolio that was focused on impact. When they looked for really smart and credible resources to help them make better decisions related to their philanthropy, they came up empty-handed. At the same time, there were people within the University of Pennsylvania who knew that they and their colleagues had some of the answers that could help donors, but were frustrated that there was no way for this knowledge to inform donor decisions. And so The Center was seeded as a place to bridge the gap that existed.

What were The Center’s original intentions? How have things evolved since the original idea?

KR: The first thing The Center needed to do was understand the evidence that was needed for donors to achieve greater impact. We knew it wasn’t just the results of academic papers. So we put ourselves in the position of donors who care about impact and asked, what answers would we need to make a bigger difference? And then we asked ourselves, what information already exists? We quickly realized that we needed to both synthesize existing information from both inside and outside the University, as well as translate it into actionable steps for donors. This became the crux of The Center’s mission, because evidence alone does not lead to impact. Action does.

CM: The mission of The Center has never changed, but the way we talk about it has evolved. Early on we knew we needed to talk to donors/philanthropists to really understand what prevents donors from having more impact and how can we help. We conducted interviews with over 30 philanthropists and this shaped a lot of our thinking and articulation of The Center’s goals. These interviews make up a report we called, “I’m not Rockefeller": 33 High Net Worth Philanthropists Discuss Their Approach to Giving. The report (available at contains demographic information and the output from structured interviews.

What are the services of The Center?

KR: Once we figured out the important questions and answers, we had to figure out the best channels to reach donors. And so we did a ton of experimentation in different areas:

  • Donor investment guides—from comprehensive analyses of broad issues, like improving education in the U.S., to shorter tips on how to help after a disaster like the Haiti earthquake;
  • Direct education of donors and their advisors;
  • Social media outlets to raise awareness;
  • Formats like 60-second lectures and podcasts—these are tools that can go viral very easily—can be consumed, used and incorporated into different sites;
  • Advisory and consulting to individual donors and their advisors.

CM: This experimentation informed what we offer as services today.

  • Donor Toolkits: Provide online guidance to donors on specific issues.
  • Donor Seminars and Educational Workshops: Invitation-only, purely educational programs where participants can learn among peers about the latest research, biggest ideas and best efforts underway in key topic areas.
  • Philanthropic Investment Guides and Reports: Provide substantive, actionable analysis for donors seeking impact in particular areas. All of these guides and reports can be downloaded for free.
  • Electronic Resources: Provide ongoing advice and thinking on social impact issues, as well as updates to philanthropic investment guides and blueprints through our twice-weekly blog and other social media formats.

KR: As we look ahead, I think a clear next step will be enhancing our offerings to include some of the functional tools and guidance that can be used by donors no matter what issue area they target.

What are the resources of The Center?

KR: The Center operates with very lean staff; currently, there are 5 professional staff. In addition, this year, we’re welcoming our first faculty director to our team. However, I think of this core group as the central node to a vast network of students, researchers and practitioners that include people throughout Penn and far beyond the University. We couldn’t do this work well unless we were a highly networked organization.

In terms of our financial resources, the Center is not endowed. We are supported by philanthropic gifts, grants to support areas of applied research, and we receive revenue from consulting, presentations and honorariums.

How does The Center determine its areas of research?

CM: We always ask the question about donor demand and interest. Some of our research is related to capability and expertise of staff and some has been driven by funding. A great example of this is The Center’s recent work around creating a framework for donors who are interested in food-related social impact right here in Philadelphia. There are many social and economic impacts related to food. They include addressing hunger and nutrition, reducing rates of obesity and heart disease, and ensuring a more sustainable environment. Such food-related issues have generated growing national attention. Billions of dollars are invested annually by researchers, corporations, institutional funders and individual donors to address these issues. However, for many donors (existing and prospective) who care about these food-related impacts, it can be difficult to see how their funds can deliver the change they seek. The Center has been engaged to create a high-level U.S. opportunity map for food funders that would clarify some of the food-related impacts sought by donors, allow for problem solving around effective engagement, identify opportunities for partnership and leverage, and offer examples of ways donors can and have created change.

KR: The Center is well positioned for this type of work because we have created similar “opportunity maps” that provide an independent, evidence-based framework for learning and decision-making for donors across a wide range of philanthropic sophistication.

How does The Center leverage all that Penn has to offer?

CM: The Center starts an effort by first tapping into the vast Penn network.

For example, one of the first research reports The Center produced was on malaria. By speaking to Penn researchers and clinicians working on malaria, as well as colleagues at Wharton addressing health system needs and cost-effectiveness, we were quickly able to get the lay of the land. These colleagues were then quickly able to point us to others outside the University whose work informed ours. The report (available at is called Lifting the Burden of Malaria: An Investment Guide for Impact-Driven Philanthropy.

When we were first developing High Impact Philanthropy in the Downturn Focus on Housing, Health, and Hunger (A Guide for Donors) (available at we spoke to colleagues in at least nine different schools within Penn, including a historian on poverty, an economist conducting research on real estate and mortgage foreclosures, and a public policy specialist whose expertise is addressing hunger.

There is not an issue area we’ve analyzed that doesn’t include multiple disciplines. We always look to leverage the knowledge, creativity and perspective of our colleagues here at Penn whenever we undertake research.

KR: Another great example of this leverage is The Center’s collaboration with The Wharton Program for Social Impact (WPSI). Under the leadership of Managing Director, Sherryl Kuhlman, WPSI is Wharton’s answer to the School’s commitment to serve as a “force for social good.” WPSI focuses on enhancing the curriculum with courses and programs that emphasize giving back to society, providing exceptional opportunities for students to participate in meaningful and impactful ways through internships and community service.
One of the Center’s collaborative projects with WPSI is our joint Social Impact Analytics Initiative, whose goal is to identify—and, where necessary, develop—meaningful and practical approaches for managing to impact. Too often the conversation around social impact is focused too narrowly—did this program cause this good impact? However, that is just one of many questions that need to be answered for both donors and nonprofit leaders to achieve the impact they seek.

We have just completed the first phase of research, which involved assessing what tools already exist and conducting interviews with a select group of nonprofits known for their capacity to measure and manage outcomes. We have talked to Youth Villages, Philabundance and Congreso, to give you an idea of some local nonprofits whose experience we have tapped. One hope is that through this initiative, we can move the field to a better place, one where both sides (funders and nonprofits) are not wasting their time on a compliance chore; rather, they are focusing on those indicators that help them have more impact.

How do funders and their advisors find and work with The Center?

KR: It has mostly been word of mouth. Through surveys we have found that those who consume the services of The Center tend to turn around and talk to their peers about their experience. All of The Center’s research is readily available via the website (

One of the things we are trying to understand better is our own “go to market channel” to maximize our reach. Technology and social media have helped immensely to spread our message to the mainstream.

How is The Center’s research consumed and, more importantly, applied to grantmaking?

KR: There are a lot of things The Center measures and we maintain a great deal of data showing how people are consuming and downloading the research from the website. We look at who is accessing our work, which we are able to do because we ask for those who download research to register.

CM: We also regularly conduct surveys of these registered users and ask them questions about the usefulness of the information and whether they actually read the reports.

KR: The big prize is knowing with confidence that The Center is driving money toward impactful strategies.

The Center has a growing reputation for inspiring and leading the debate about what makes effective charities and how we can measure this. How is The Center continuing to build its voice?

KR: There are things we do that support individual decision-making and there are things we do to push the field towards greater impact. The Center has been involved in many field-building efforts around impact, such as Charity Navigator 2.0, Guidestar Charting Impact, Growth Philanthropy’s Social Impact Exchange, and Aspen Institute’s Working Group on Metrics, just to name a few. How The Center thinks about evidence and how The Center deals with the limitations of data are areas of expertise we bring to the table.

The Center continues to build out a network of donors, intermediaries and nonprofits, so that we can continue to play that bridging role.

What take-away would you provide for readers?

KR: At the end of the day, all of our work is aimed at enabling the flow of philanthropic capital to where it can do the most good. What we want is a world where the easiest thing to do is to practice high-impact philanthropy. A world where it is easier and easier for donors to achieve the change they seek and it is easier and easier for nonprofit leaders to create change. We see our role as doing a lot of the legwork so that the rest of the field can move faster, and more confidently, from generosity and good intentions to social impact.

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