Give for Good

How many of us have fantasized about rewriting the rules on how money is given away?  A decade ago, I became so interested in changing how philanthropy happens that I sought out two informational interviews with local foundations to find out how I could flip sides and use my skills to give away money for a change.  It would have been a nice break from life on soft funding, looking for money around every turn.  In both interviews, these foundation leaders whose jobs I coveted wistfully advised me to stay on the non-profit side because it is where the social change action takes place.

I still yearn to try my hand at philanthropy, albeit from the perspective of someone still working on the front lines of organizations dedicated to social change.  In fact, there has never been a greater need for collaboration between recipients and providers of social change-related grants given the urgency of some of our world’s most pressing issues.  Foundations have started important discussions related to social change philanthropy; fewer NGOs have published their ideas about how philanthropy should evolve.

I have been thinking about philanthropy since this past summer when a friend asked me to comment on the subject.  It got me thinking, and I drafted some notes.  I realized that it was time to go beyond a few notes a week ago when another friend talked with me about her challenge with legacy planning, trying to craft a will that honors her lifelong commitment to a better world.  Legacy gifts are the ultimate expression of our values, and deciding which organizations best express these values push us not only to look at the work of organizations we care about today but their potential to deliver an impact well after we are around.

I was asked what philanthropists should consider in their giving for good:

1.       Invest in people.  One way to support social change that ends widespread poverty is to find people who have track records that demonstrate effectiveness and integrity, and then invest in their agenda for change.  Think of it as a small scale social change MacArthur Fellowship.  Indeed, MacArthur Fellowships reward individuals who demonstrate “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”  The Fellowship looks at an individual’s past and makes a judgment about their future potential.  I think about the individuals around the world who are my heroes, people who have done the right thing by their people time and time again.  These are the people in whom philanthropists should invest.

Investing in the people behind social change means investing in exchanges, professional development opportunities, and training that allows local leaders to do the work in partnership with others.  It means standing by them as they try new ideas, not pulling funding if one set of ideas doesn’t work.  It means supporting their local networks so that they are able to bring their community along with them.

2.       Balance long term social change with short term needs.  Much of the literature about social change philanthropy recites an overly simplistic mantra of addressing root causes, not symptoms.  As Aileen Shaw wrote in “Social Justice Philanthropy” in 2002, social change is different from traditional charity much like advocacy differs from service provision.  Social change philanthropy helps people to help themselves, not giving handouts that lead nowhere.  Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.

This mantra, however, neglects the reality that social change leaders face.  While they  are addressing root causes of oppression, violence, and hunger in various ways, their community members also have to be safe, clothed, and fed.  Zealous focus on long term change can create blind spots to the short term needs of families often experiencing turbulence over time.  It is easy for us on the outside to demand disciplined focus on long term solutions; the reality is that our partners have to do both.  Effective philanthropists must balance the vision of long term benefit with the reality of short term needs.

It is also important to remember that teaching a man to fish doesn’t always happen in one trip to the lake.  Supporting an indigenous-led organization as they address a society where the odds are stacked against them is not something for those wanting to get in and out in a short window of time.  It can take a generation—sometimes several—to make social shifts stick.  Effective social change philanthropy means multi-year commitments.

3.       Provide a forum for you to realize your own learning goals.  What do you want to learn through your philanthropy?  Through the funding process, foundations and programmatic partners impose goals and objectives on social change projects all of the time.  Indigenous leaders are expected to get better at certain things during grant cycles, all of which is documented in grant proposals and reports.  An important way to even out the power divide between giver and receiver of funds is to approach grant-making from the perspective of shared learning where both sides have learning objectives to achieve.  I think of it in terms of inquiry-based social change where there are no prescribed outcomes determined by outsiders, but rather a shared process which uncovers new insights and deepens our collective understanding of the work before us.

Recently the executive director of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, Bill Somerville, presented six predictions for philanthropy that he claims will be noticeable by 2014.  It was reprinted in the Nonprofit Quarterly under the headline “Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming,” a testament to its rosy predictions about a return to people-based, trust-oriented philanthropy.  Perhaps I would stop fantasizing about changing philanthropy if this dream came true.

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