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#338 A Faux Pas – and A Lesson for Philanthropy

May 21st, 2019

Richard Marker

This brief vignette is written while in Rome for meetings and presentations. Among the topics of the international gathering, the primary reason for this trip, is the challenge of NGO responses to the movements of peoples around the world, and of migrants in Europe in particular.

Some of those responses are nothing short of heroic, but, in context, the situation is overwhelming and has more to do with public policy than hands on human services. I suspect that last statement surprises no one reading this piece.

However, a very personal experience showed how one can unintentionally find oneself making what may be perceived to be a political statement – especially one at odds with one’s own position. And, by extension, a teachable moment for us in the philanthropy sector.

As the last minute, I was asked to moderate the keynote sessions that outlined the relevant data, some applicable NGO responses, and the challenges to the international leaders present. I make no claim to be an international expert in the field of migrants, but I am an experienced speaker and moderator, so the organizers felt comfortable that my last-minute substitution was a safe one. I daresay they were correct but…

My chosen attire that day happened to include a green dress shirt. It was an aesthetic choice and not a political one. [Sometimes when I participate in climate and environmental sessions, I do wear green purposely, but on this occasion, there was no such intentionality.] After our session, a very good friend who now lives in Italy, a world-renowned scholar whose knowledge is exceeded only by his humility, pulled me aside. He knew me well enough to know that what I just reported about my attire was true, but he gently informed me that, in Italy today, wearing green is an anti-immigrant symbol – and to Italian eyes and in other settings, my shirt might have been read as a political counterpoint to the substance of the presentations. [He went on to give me a couple of other recent examples of the same error – clearly to assuage my evident horror of my unintended statement.]


Having spoken in 39 countries over the years, and visited many others, I pride myself on cultural sensitivity. I confess that this one caught me fully unaware. But it did reinforce how important it is to not assume that our actions are always perceived as benign, even when seemingly innocuous. When one is in a leadership or public or funder role, one must never allow oneself the indulgence to think that others won’t judge our actions, our words, and, yes, even our attire.

In the current philanthropy world, this is a real life symbol of the lessons we as funders must take with us in all of our work, of what it means to be a funder – with privilege and power. Where one sits, literally and figuratively, is a statement. What one funds is surely a statement. What one says and how one speaks are, unquestionably, statements.

In my teaching philanthropists about philanthro-ethics, it has been my experience that the vast majority want to fund wisely, and also to behave well. It is rare indeed that a funder wants to lord the power imbalance over their grantees and petitioners. Usually theirs are errors of unawareness. Behaviors or words that may seem innocuous to a funder may be heard as judgmental or fully loaded by those on non-profit side. Letters are often scrutinized for their underlying secret code, and a passing observation about a project or priority may be read as an alert.

If one is a leader or a funder, self-awareness becomes a sine qua non, and sensitivity to our affect a mandate. Without it, we can inadvertently appear patronizing. Worse, we may so intimidate our grantees that we never have the open communication to let us make the informed decisions about our funding that we truly want to make. This not the first time this point has been made, and it won’t be the last.

But, as I was reminded yesterday, it matters.

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