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#295 Institutional Memory Does Matter

November 15th, 2017

Richard Marker

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a very respected colleague in our philanthropy field. He and I are contemporaries, but I daresay he is better known than I, a detail of some relevance to this post.

Our conversation veered into observations about developments in and the state of our field. For many reasons it is growing, there is both consolidation and expansion at the same time, there are those pushing philanthropic giving into more assertive spaces, there is a recognition of both the expansive capacity and the severe limits of what philanthropy can accomplish, and, for both of us, a sense that not everything that is purported to be new really is.

About that last point: Both of us have been in the field long enough to find others “discovering” things that we had, ourselves, done or written about a long time ago. We are both bemused that the eureka discoveries are simply rediscovering what so many have said before. There is an admitted ambivalence in seeing these things: we could constantly post corrective references to our own writings and accomplishments – to remind folks of our contributions to the field of philanthropy learning, or, alternatively we can accept that everyone needs to learn philanthropy practice in his or her own way, at her or his own pace, and it is ok for them to claim discovery.

As a quondam university educator, I learned very early on, that, for students, if they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. It mattered not that a year or 5 or 10 or 20 years earlier, other students had planned the same activity, studied the same text, written the same insights. The very process of learning those same things is indispensable to education. Otherwise, I came to understand, one would have a hard time justifying teaching Aristotle very year! So as tempting as it was to tell the students what their predecessors did wrong or right, and it would have been so much more efficient to have done so, it would have been a counter-productive disempowerment. It took more of my time and patience, but the long-time result was far superior.

So, as I said, my better-known colleague and I have learned to smile knowingly, hold our tongues, and keep silent as others take bows for their “innovations” and “insights.” Probably as it should be.

But perhaps not always. It is one thing for individuals to learn anew what comprise best practices, how not to abuse the power imbalance, and the challenge of saying “no” to so many. But it is something quite different to find a shocking absence of institutional memory among the many organizations and affinity groups in our field. One of the costs of the absence of institutional memory is forgetting that our field matters, and always has. We are responsible, collectively, for billions of dollars, an entire sector, and a great deal of public policy. We are not the sole supporters, the sole influences, and the sole determiners of public policy. But we do matter.

Institutional memory should be in play when challenges to the public weal are prevalent; when civility has become a rare and precious commodity in public discourse; when public policy is set by the highest bidder. Only our field has the independence to call it out. We have the independence – and I would say the responsibility – to advocate for decency, support for the most vulnerable, the interconnectedness of our policies with our funding priorities. This is not a new role for philanthropy: most of the patriarchs [yes, most but certainly not all were men] in our field understood this. Whatever their motivations and personal histories, they came to understand that polity requires civility, that civility requires equity, and that equity is only possible with the financial resources to make it so.

Institutional memory would have saved the time and money needed to hold summits to address what many have said before, what many have said long before my colleague and I said these things. Our advocacy and involvement in public policy are not new, and not only brought about by the current fragile state of our democracy, but have always been there. And we have paid a price as many have been reluctant or slow to speak, advocate, connect the dots, and recognize our unique mandate.

As funders, we engage in our own strategies, struggle with our own decisions, look for tools to enhance the impact of our philanthropic dollars. Maybe not easy, exactly, but absorbing and demanding. Sufficiently so that we may lose sight that we are always, by definition, playing in a larger sphere. Our decisions don’t only decide what worthy group or organization or city gets funded, but also what doesn’t. And writ large, our decisions say something important about what our public policies should look like, and which sector should have which responsibilities.

Advocacy matters. Why? Because, while philanthropy does matter, a lot, it never has and never will have the resources to solve systemic problems alone. Indeed, there is no systemic challenge that does not require a public policy commitment. It is wrong to allow politicians to deflect responsibility to the voluntary sector to solve such problems, and it is equally wrong for our sector to choose to ignore our mandate to keep educating political forces of their responsibility to the citizenry.

As one who has been educating philanthropists and foundation folk for almost 2 decades, I am never surprised that those in our field have to learn and re-learn basics of the laws [they differ depending where in the world one lives], ethics, and best practices that make us thoughtful and responsible funders. That is why we teach what we do, and it helps guarantee that our field continues to develop standards of excellence, and behaviors built on humility and an understanding of our power imbalance.

But best practices are not the same as understanding the uniqueness of our potential in shaping a larger society based on values. For that, we need to understand our roles at a more basic and profound level. We matter because we are advocating by our decisions, whether we intend to or not. We owe it to ourselves, our field, and our communities to do so with greater intention.

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