A Seattle Philanthropist’s Guide for Giving Back

Stephanie Ellis-Smith says philanthropy is not as difficult as you may think

By Rob Smith December 5, 2022

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Kyle Johnson

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Stephanie Ellis-Smith refers to herself as “the weird person who always volunteered to be on the development committee” for the various nonprofits she was involved with. It makes sense, then, that Ellis-Smith is now one of the region’s foremost philanthropic advisers for ultra-high-net-worth individuals.

Ellis-Smith has more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, leading fundraising efforts as a board member for the likes of the YWCA Seattle | King| Snohomish and Artist Trust. She founded her own company, Phila Engaged Giving, in 2017 and also recently cofounded Giving Gap – formerly known as Give Blck – an online database of Black-founded nonprofit organizations.

Her overriding philosophy is simple: It never hurts to ask.

“If someone is giving $500 and you didn’t even ask ’em for it, chances are, they could give a thousand,” she says. “It’s a question of just sort of unlocking it and it happens at every level of the scale. If someone passing by gives you $10, I bet they could give you $20 or $25. How do you pull more out?”

What’s the present state of philanthropy? It’s in flux. The reasons for that are manyfold. Much of it is because of Covid and economic uncertainty.

How did the protests and Covid influence giving? It was a spark. A lot of people started making wills and looking at their estate planning. OK, wait a minute. I have excess assets. I’m not going to be able to use all these assets for the rest of my life. What am I doing to do with all this? 

Those in the stock market did quite well the past couple of years. The billionaire class made on average 30% more in their portfolios during the pandemic. There’s this huge chasm of wealth and people needed to do something completely different. Why is so much power concentrated at this end of the spectrum? How do we start shifting this power to actually really move the needle for true change? 

How big a factor was the murder of George Floyd? It became about giving through the racial equity lens and trust-based philanthropy. Can we stop putting these organizations through all of these hoops? If you know them, just give them the money. At this point, we don’t have time anymore to be playing all these stupid games.  

How can people get started in philanthropy? There are so many different ways. I tell folks who like to learn by doing to volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. Just step into the breach. Get in there. Do something. There’s an important notion to be considered about leveraging funds and getting your biggest bang for the buck. But folks who are just ready to figure this all out and try some things, I tell them to just get started. Making the world better now is what we need. The world can’t wait anymore.

How do you create a giving plan? There are a lot of really, really good resources online where you learn about the types of questions to ask yourself and set up a budget.

Do all gifts need to be strategic? Can you make a nonstrategic gift? Sure. Do we need nonstrategic gifts? Absolutely. Nothing bad is going to happen if you make the wrong financial donation. No one is going to die if you give money to the wrong organization. We put so much high stakes on it sometimes. I mean, if you see someone who needs your help, right now, I always say do it.

Is it really that simple? It depends. Sometimes it is quite complicated, particularly as you get up in the higher echelons because if you’re dropping money into one sector, it’s a big bomb. For the average donor, it does not have to be. Some people like to know the six steps that you can take [to develop a plan], and other folks just want to support this arts organization they like. They don’t care if they spend X amount in their overhead. I don’t disparage that.

How broad is your definition of philanthropy? It means things that are not necessarily tax deductible. It’s giving based on your values. I am also including supporting your niece and nephew, because they’re going to a private school and the whole family has to chip in for tuition.

What’s your definition of family philanthropy? Family culture. I’ve helped folks who wanted to have a mission statement because they all want to be on the same page and it’s a way for the family to bond. There are other families that want folks to do their own thing and jump in on Thanksgiving and see what they did. And they may like that in perpetuity.

How do you instill philanthropy in children? You have to show, not tell, what your family’s values are because kids pick up on that. If nobody does it, they’re not stupid. And kids are never too young. Giving, and I wouldn’t use the term philanthropy, is something that kids understand in different ways at every age. And I have said you could start teaching about giving the moment they learn please and thank you. And that’s around 18 months

There’s so much overlap. How do you determine which organizations to give to? There’s not an easy answer. One easy way to sort of sift through is to look at what other funders like, such as United Way or the Washington Women’s Foundation. Organizations that they give their money to are very, very well vetted. But that doesn’t mean that the small organizations should be ignored.

What online resources are helpful? You can check Charity Navigator. Or GuideStar. There’s a great resource started by the Raikes Foundation here called Giving Compass. And the IRS does flag organizations in their 990s [official filings] if they’ve had some sort of impropriety. If you’re looking for impact and you’re just Googling, you’ll be fine. But if you’re looking for real impact, you have to get up, get out there and go to their luncheons and sign up to get on their newsletters and see what they’re doing. These organizations do a lot of communication to donors and potential donors.

Are you seeing a trend toward directly giving to organizations rather than those who disburse money, like United Way? I am a more of a direct giver. But federated giving like through a United Way feels really good because they make the allocation. There’s convenience. Regardless, my job and whomever I’m talking to is to move more money from the private sector back to the public sector. That’s it. And when the rubber meets the road, I don’t care how you do it, to be totally honest.

How do you determine what’s important to society versus what’s important to an individual donor? I’ve been approached by this so many times because I’m an arts and culture person. In a society as rich as ours there is no reason why we have to choose. We should be able to have the arts as well as have people fed and housed. Second, people like to make the assumption that the arts are elitist. The trombone player in the symphony has very little money and has devoted his or her life to this art form that gives joy to people. And if we did not have the arts, especially when we’re in this kind of upheaval right now, where would we be?

How about giving locally versus more broadly? It matters depending on what you want to accomplish. Placed-based giving is giving localized within a community. The advantages of that is you see where your money goes. You’re part of a community. There are other folks who follow a movement called effective altruism. They are looking for the greatest good. Where can I get the greatest impact?

What new trends are you seeing? Giving circles are really big right now. You can pool your funds and be in a giving circle with like-minded people.

Do women have different priorities from men? I always get a little hesitant about making these broad generalizations, but studies do back this up. Women do actually in general give differently than men. They tend to give faster and to more organizations. If they have $100, they will give $10 to 10 organizations, where men may give $50 to two. That kind of tells me that they might be a little bit more cautious. But it’s interesting. I mean, look at who’s leading the way in giving right now and it’s Mackenzie Scott.

How are younger people changing philanthropy? Gen Z are the ones who running things at this point. The big change is really looking at not just the movement of funds but the care of the whole person around rest, restoration, sabbaticals and getting rid of the grant process. I mean, if you’ve been funding me for 10 years, why do I have to keep applying? You know who we are. Let’s tighten this stuff and create efficiencies.

Is there much fraud in the nonprofit sector? There’s a lot of unfortunate talk in the mainstream media about a lot of fraud. There really is not. It’s really rare.

What do you tell donors concerned about fraud? Trust your instincts. The best fundraisers know this, too. People give to people. You don’t give to organizations. They are there, but you give to the people you know doing work that you care about and you respect. And this is not just for the average donor. This is even what I say to our ultra-high-net-wealth clients.

What do you mean when you say philanthropy should be more justice than charity? I want to be careful how I phrase this. I use it a lot in context to my client base because it’s also a mindset that I think folks who are extremely wealthy have. I think the mindset for all of us, but especially for that set, is to want to think about justice. What is right and what is fair?

What’s your favorite mission-driven project or campaign? Giving Gap, only because it’s one of these sorts of organizations that helps people give better. It’s not just for individuals. Foundations can use it. Companies can us it. If they’re interested in funding, animals, criminal justice or art, there are Black-led organizations in all those areas. And so it’s a way for people to diversify their portfolios. And I just personally think it’s needed.

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