December 27th, 2017
Some years ago, when Mirele and I began to help other funders and foundations develop their strategies, we realized that we needed to “walk the walk” and develop our own. We did, and I am happy to say that our strategy has served us well for quite a while. It has done what it is supposed to: given us a framework for considering where our philanthropic dollars should go, and, as important, when to say “no.” The process works.
Our own priorities are definitely not “place based” but are completely “values based.” That doesn’t mean that there are never locally based recipients; of course, there are. But the reason they receive our funds is not because they are where we live but because they are consistent with our values and involvements.
Some recent personal experiences have made me wonder if we have been too absolute in our funding approach.
1. We moved
As many readers know, we have recently relocated our residence from New York to DC. [Needless to say, we will continue to be regularly engaged in philanthropy related work in New York and elsewhere in the world.] After 20 years, such a move is not without emotion. What has been striking to me, and in retrospect not so surprising, is that the most touching reactions to our relocation were by those with whom we had a “place based” relationship. Many of those were personal friends with whom we will continue to connect, but many of the most meaningful reactions and notes were from individuals active in organizations with a local focus. Perhaps also not surprising: Our move mattered much less to those whom we know in more national and international contexts even if they happen to live in New York and our meetings are typically n NY – their focus and our fellow board members are from all over so our move was not that significant to our relationship. I daresay that all of this should hardly have been a surprise, but I hadn’t realized how striking the difference would be. And, more important, it made me aware that our personal place-based involvements really had made a bit of a difference.
2. There are differences between NY and DC
We also discovered a real difference in the way the Washington area philanthropy world is organized. In many of the places where I have spoken or consulted or lived, there is no divide between locally place-based funders and those whose funding priorities transcend those boundaries. But in DC there is a very clear divide. One is either a local funder or part of the other Washington – the one of outsiders and transients. [We have noticed that the same seems to apply in social and organizational contexts as well.] One is forced, almost, to declare if one is a local. [By the way, DC comes by that concern honestly – for decades, it has been under-supported by the national government that limits its electoral enfranchisement. And it is true that many residents are in fact passing through with no real commitment to the place. Many organizations with headquarters here are focused on their national agenda and ignore a local one.]
3. There are limits to systemic level philanthropy
Another development in our field has, independent of our move, precipitated my own re-thinking. Many big-picture funders are interested in solving the big systemic challenges. They make “big bets”, take on massive “challenges” and think beyond the limits of predefined sectors. They want impact, and they want it now, measureable, and sustainable. I, for one, am all for that, and identify myself with those ambitious goals.
What many have been slow to realize, though, is that change takes place on the ground. One can attempt to eradicate illiteracy and food insecurity and poverty and malaria by major policy initiatives of multi-sector collaborations. But at the end of the day, those initiatives only make sense if individuals can actually read, and individuals have adequate nutrition, and individuals have enough resources to function, and individuals are no longer ill. Systems don’t feed them or cure them – they are fed and taught and cured by someone on the ground, in local communities.
Implementation is key. There is no systems change, no matter how persuasive and innovative, unless someone on the ground can implement those systems. Therefore, many funders have come to understand that a commitment to systems change can only work with a concomitant commitment to understanding [and funding] place-based institutions that can make it stick.
While our pockets are much, much shallower than the mega funders who have pushed systems change as step one, our priorities and funding practices have been aligned with them. Maybe it is time for a re-think. Perhaps we don’t have to renegotiate our “values approach” to our giving, only where our dollars will have the greatest impact. In other words, it is a false trade-off between “place-based” and “values-based.” One can support the values inherent in systems thinking and recognize that without a commitment to implement them in real places, they are simply abstractions.
In the meantime, we are spending our early months in our new locale getting to know our local DC colleagues, and about their funding practices. Let’s see where all of this goes.