On a quiet street opposite Memorial Park on 16th Street, in Santa Monica is a small, unassuming multi-business building, that houses among others, a 501c3 non-profit organization called Focusing Philanthropy. And since it was founded over 10 years ago, over $100 million has been donated and more than 10 million people’s lives improved globally.
Founder and Chairman of the Board Larry Gilson, a Southern California native, has recently handed off his CEO responsibilities to Teresa Burton, who has stepped up to the role of Executive Director.
“In a startup phase, everyone is required to wear every hat and as we’ve grown — and we’ve grown nicely, which has been extremely gratifying — we’ve built a team and we have a terrific team,” Gilson says. “This is not a personalized organization to me, somebody obviously had to found it, but we need systems, processes, teams and organization. To run it all efficiently, we need the right structure.”
Focusing Philanthropy describes itself as a nonprofit organization that identifies areas of extraordinary human need where individual donors can make a difference, then develops unique giving opportunities in concert with well-vetted nonprofit partners and presents them as candidates for individual philanthropy at no cost to donors or partners.
Gilson says that he believes that individual philanthropists and small foundations can make more informed, confident, and impactful decisions regarding the allocation of their charitable dollars by working together and pooling their dollars. A rather unique and understated aspect of Focusing Philanthropy is that the organization’s expenses — including salaries — are paid for by the Gilson family. Consequently, neither the donors who use them as a resource, nor the nonprofits to which funds are directed, incur any costs.
“Our loyalty is to our donors because they are relying on us and our judgment in the information that we share to inform their decision making,” Gilson says. “We’re not just trying to be the yellow pages of philanthropy. We have a small menu of giving opportunities at any given time. And there are many things that we look at and we don’t embrace. So we don’t publish a list of the things that we don’t embrace, we publish the things that we have the greatest conviction about. And then we try to be as honest and as substantive and as timely as we can be.”
In essence, Focusing Philanthropy seeks to help those who are able and willing to donate money to humanitarian causes “achieve a comparable level of comfort with a more diverse array of worthy recipients to that which they could obtain by visiting local charities.” Or in other words, ensure their financial donations aren’t squandered or liberated by a less than reputable organization or collective.
“In doing so, we believe the level of giving will increase and very worthwhile organizations will be supported which might not otherwise have been known to motivated donors,” Gilson says.
For the first 25 years of his career, Gilson held a variety of positions in the nation’s capital in and around the federal government and then in private equity. He was one of the founding staff of Common Cause, a citizens’ lobbying organization and he later served on the White House Staff of President Jimmy Carter. In 1995, he founded and led GFI Energy Ventures, investing several billion dollars in dozens of companies. He eventually sold his interest and now advises the company.
“We’re not retail philanthropy, obviously we’re a special type of offering to a particular type of donor and largely, we grow through word of mouth. We have a very loyal and supportive and enthusiastic donor base,” Gilson says, adding, “And they’re telling their friends and their friends are telling their friends. And we’ve been at this long enough that we have some reputation nationally and internationally.”
There’s no denying, the list of achievements is impressive: Over 82,800 blind people can see again as a result of sight-restoring surgeries with the Seva Foundation, more than 104,150 people gained access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene training with Water for People and 514,097 subsistence farm family members are permanently out of starvation poverty as a result of the work carried by One Acre Fund.