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#311 In the Age of ‘Equity’, How Neutral Should a Philanthropy Advisor Be?

June 1st, 2018

Richard Marker

This post is a continuation of a series of considerations of the role of philanthropy in these times of challenge to civic decency, honesty, government reliability, and persistent systemic crises. This one will focus on the role of an advisor/consultant. While, as many of you know, the issues raised in this piece have been on my mind for a while, it is being written in the context of an intriguing webinar sponsored by NCRP this past week on matters of power re-balancing within the funder space.

I spend all of my professional time in the philanthropy space wearing many hats. A small part of that is as an advisor to funders, primarily in the strategy realm. One of the distinguishing features of my work in this area is that, unlike most of my philanthropy advisor colleagues, I won’t take any retainer contracts and don’t help manage anyone’s giving. The value of that to a funder, a family, or a foundation is that I have no stake in the outcome of any strategy approach I help develop with them. Many funders are surprised and delighted to learn that there are those of us who can give independent counsel with no financial stake in the outcome. [We readily refer those who want or need another kind of relationship with an advisor to those whose business model aligns with those needs.]

Concomitant to the independence of the recommendations has been a commitment to neutrality. That is, this part of my work has always been value neutral. My work as an advisor to and educator of funders, I have always felt, should be to help every funder, foundation, or family discover their own core values and needs, and then help them determine how to implement them going forward. My own preferences or biases should be irrelevant.

Recently, though, the above-mentioned webinar and their identification of a group of philanthropy advisors to help guide the field have made me wonder whether that neutrality has been too limiting. The three speakers, 2 of whom I didn’t know but are clearly successful advisors, were all explicitly committed to a values lens in their work. It is a dilemma, for me, at least – one needs to help guide the field and provide thought-leadership during this time of transformation, and at the same time, be cautious not to impose one’s own values and priorities on others. Yet these colleagues seem to have managed to do so quite successfully.

In the past, I have not felt any problem with having strongly held positions in our own giving, in the foundation I used to head, on the boards of which I have been a trustee, in my writings, and in my public speaking. [Some readers may recall one of my proud moments when, in a conference evaluation, one attendee commented on my talk: “I don’t agree with anything he said, but I could listen to him all day long.”]

The question, though, is whether the environment in which philanthropy must function today has changed so profoundly that we no longer have the luxury of neutrality in our advising. In another article, to be published soon after this one, I will address this question regarding philanthropy’s role vis a vis government and public policy. Suffice it to say that every single grant or contribution or investment we make reflects a value. To repeat a thought from above, these are “times of challenge to civic decency, honesty, government reliability, and persistent systemic crises.” These are not normal times, and the stakes have rarely been higher. At the risk of being melodramatic, is it still responsible philanthropy or is it an indulgence to fund projects without addressing the “equity” implications?” And, if one decides that “equity” is an indispensable component of contemporary philanthropy, can one be a responsible advisor if one doesn’t proactively put that on the table?

Ethical philanthropy advising requires deep expertise in the field. That should be a non-negotiable given. But to do philanthropy advising well is an art, relying on that expertise, an understanding of family or group dynamics, uncovering unstated and often unclarified aspirations, and the ability to leave the client empowered to do the good which their resources allow.

The question this post asks: how much of the artist should be in the picture? Or, perhaps we always are even if we think we aren’t.

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