Putting "The People" in Philanthropy

September 24, 2009 5 Comments


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We had an interesting conversation during last week’s Engage for Results session at the Donors Forum in Chicago.  IISC has been partnering with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) to offer this two day skill-building session to foundations interested in strategies for engaging stakeholders in their grantmaking.  This offering grew out of GEO’s Change Agent Project, which revealed the strong interest on the part of nonprofits to be in deeper relationship with funders in order to achieve greater impact.

On the first morning, I shared some striking results from a 2008 GEO survey of attitudes and practices of foundations in the United States.  Specifically, less than half (49%) of those foundations surveyed indicated that it was important for their organization to seek external input.  Among GEO membership the number was higher, coming in at 78%.  However, the survey also showed that overall only 36% of respondents actively solicited feedback from their grantees.  That strikes as quite a discrepancy between stated beliefs and actual practice.  So I turned to the workshop participants for reactions.

The ensuing discussion touched on a variety of possible reasons for this gap.  What came up for me as I listened and thought back to other conversations in past Engage for Results workshops, was the discomfort that some foundation staff experience when confronted by the anticipated demands of being more responsive to their grantees and other stakeholders.   It seems that many foundations just aren’t well-equipped or structured to be very collaborative.  There is also some question out there about whether all foundations need to be inclusive of grantee perspectives.  While I’m not able to offer an answer here, I am struck by the degree to which philanthropy overall seems to lag behind the private and public sectors in terms of its demonstrated interest in being more customer-driven.

With President Obama’s push to make government more transparent and participatory and businesses understanding the importance of tuning into the desires of customers, I find it relatively disheartening to hear where the conversation is in philanthropy.  Part of the explanation seems to reside in the irrationality of the non-profit financial market in which foundations sit, not to mention their considerable position of power. Simply put, funders can afford to be unresponsive and hold onto top-down models of doing business . . . for now.  Marty Neumeier has pointed out that this is the management model that, when applied in the private sector today, frequently leads to “distrustful customers, disheartened employees, and suspicious communities.”  On top of this, the “wicked problems” out there reveal the impotence of acting in isolation.  All of this said, I find hope in GEO members and other funders who are earnestly exploring what it means to be more effective and accountable as well as the new and increasingly diverse foundation staff members who are asking important questions about power, privilege, and possibilities for funders to re-organize and run themselves in a complex networked world.  Philanthropy 2.0, where art thou?


  • Linda says:

    Not sure Funders can afford to hang onto non-Inclusive approaches if they want their dollars to create real change. This is a big conversation among those doing social justice philanthropy – the importance of philanthropic strategies being deeply informed by the activists on the ground. And then there’s a question of how to do so in foundations that are often not structured to be inclusive.

  • Linda – I think you hit the nail on the head with, “…if they want their dollars to create real change.” the operative word being, “IF”.

    Also – cannot escape the humor of dollars creating change. That’s what happens to all of my dollars – I end up with a pocket full of change, if I’m lucky.

    Seriously though, why do we believe that foundations are interested in creating real change? Perhaps, like a lot of businesses, they are in the business of staying in business and those running the show are in the business of keeping their jobs. This practice is not about affecting change; it is about maintaining the status quo while presenting an illusion of philanthropy.

  • Curtis says:

    There are foundations out there that are definitely committed to spending down their endowments. So it’s not all about preserving the wealth. And there are some good cases of funders that open themselves up to external participation and being held accountable for making impact-oriented decisions. An interesting story would be around what leads those funders to be different.

    On another note, in an article in the Christian Science Monitor (“Social Media, Social Impact”) Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy Advisers (and social media blogger) notes that philanthropy is “late to the party” when compared to nonprofits and other sectors with respect to the use of social media. His explanation is that foundations are not in the business of connecting with external people. This is stated in a rather matter of fact way, and again leaves me wondering how it’s okay for philanthropy to fashion itself as a relatively closed system. How do you access real impact and innovation that way?

  • Melinda says:

    Im reminded by the Audre Lourde essay (and the subject of my undergraduate thesis, btw), “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”. Wealth creation in this country has come from a system based on exploitation, slavery, greed, racism and oppression of many other kinds. To what extent should we be surprised that the epicenters of wealth in this country, such as philanthrophy, are walking a hard, sluggish, resistant road to dismantling, breaking away from and re-fashioning (enough words here?) a new, different, opposite ethic, culture, framework for eh…philanthropy that might lead to true social transformation? (is that really the goal? I feel you Charlie. We musnt assume…spending down endowments notwithstanding, what is the goal?)

    That, for me, was the breakthrough breath of fresh air we inhaled at the recent Social Justice for Philanthropy and Peace gathering we had the pleasure of facilitating with Ford Foundation as sponsor in Cairo earlier this year. Simply put: all philanthropists are NOT created equal. Most want to do charity work; only few actually want to actively work to dismantle systems of oppression that re-order things. Reality check people! 🙂 Not sure that impact and innovation (to the extent that would ‘dismantle the Master’s house’) are true aspirations for most philanthropists. I think they do exist, but they are a remnant.

    I would also be curious to hear the conversation along these lines within professional associations such as the National Center on Black Philanthrophy and Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. You are right, Curtis, to ask this question about the people element in philanthropy. My framing, given Lourde’s admonition, might be to suggest that people who are open to , even bent on, House demolition and reconstruction (pun welcomed!) are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

  • Curtis says:

    Melinda, thanks for your thoughts and insights. I agree that there is a considerable foundation (pun intended) of privilege behind most (OK, ALL) philanthropy and that in reality most seem more charity oriented. This is not to overlook the incredible contributions that foundations have made over the years, stepping in to fill the void left by government and “the people” (instituting emergency response systems, funding for important medical research and scientific breakthroughs, etc.). And this is certainly not the same as creating structural change that leads to a more just or sustainable society. I think a conversation with more “radical” thinkers who have chosen to be in philanthropy with a mind towards leveraging resources for social change would be a fascinating one to continue . . .

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