The Layer Cake Approach to Giving

In previous posts I have talked about looking at your charitable giving from the perspective of a portfolio. A diversified a number of organizations within a “narrow giving theme” (i.e. access to water) allows you to see the impact of your donations through quantitative and qualitative analysis, with limited or no cross-pollination of information between the agencies.  It also allows you to compare your funding results with other funders for donation performance (similar to how one would compare mutual funds).

Another approach is the Layer-Cake approach.  Having a broader giving theme and layering organizations and projects on top of each other so that they feed into one-another.  In a way it allows you to leverage your donation (time, talent, treasures or ties) through all the organizations that you support.


One example is a foundation I recently helped establish - Silver Gummy Foundation approached their giving in this manner.  The founder of this private foundation is focusing her impact around sexual identity, gender issues and masculinity.  Her long-term vision is to push the needle on domestic violence rates and negative gender imaging  in the next generation of kids moving through the school system.


When we first started putting this foundation together we went through a series of exercises including exploring the founder’s personal values and taking her BHAG and breaking it down into bite-sized pieces.  Using the SMART approach (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timely) we narrowed down the organizations that were going to be considered for the first round of funding.  It was imperative that the organizations that are supported could be layered upon each other so that information could be shared within the agencies, and that they would remain autonomous in their abilities to do what they needed to do in order to address the issues at hand.


Just like a layer cake - each layer is its own cake with a single flavour profile and a coating of icing allowing for the cake to be consumed one layer at a time.  But when stacked, layer cakes with icing in-between not only create height and depth, but they end up being a mix of flavours that compliment each other.  The diner can choose to eat one layer at a time, or slice through all the whole cake.  


A layer-cake approach allows the donor to hone in on one organization that they support when particular care and support is needed or bring multiple complementary organizations together to cross-pollinate ideas and support each other’s work.


In the case of Silver Gummy, we went on a few site visits and met with Executive Directors from a variety of organizations. There were two that stood out that allowed for the layer-cake approach: University of Calgary and Calgary Sexual Health Centre.  


Through the interview process we learned that the Calgary Sexual Health Centre was using research coming out of the UofC to support their existing programs, and that the UofC Werklund School of Education was interested in creating a professorship on masculinity studies in education.  Upon further consideration and deeper conversations we learned that this unique research professorship would naturally feed back into the work that the Sexual Health Centre was doing with their WiseGuyz program and other programs. The layered effect - we could work with each agency separately on the different initiatives and collectively enhancing the quality of the programs and services that are being offered.


This model isn’t for everyone. It requires organizations who are committed to working with other agencies, who are open to having donors engaged beyond cheque writing, and who are able and willing to apply metrics that can blend with other agencies.  This final point also requires the donor to be willing and able to fund the data collection necessary for the sharing of information throughout the system.


Where the portfolio approach keeps the organizations “siloed” and the donor remains the sole evaluator of the success and/or failure of a project or organization (in essence increasing or decreasing engagement with the funded agencies as a reflection of their opinion of the reported successes), the layer-cake allows for cross-pollination between all the parties involved.


Both models work. Both allow for meaningful conversation around effectiveness and impact, they just approach the system of giving from different angles.