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#362 20 Years Teaching Funders from Around the World: Lessons Learned

February 17th, 2020

Richard Marker

Let me get the self-congratulatory stuff out of the way at the beginning. Feel free to skip to ¶ 4:

In 2000, while still the CEO/EVP of a foundation that closed in 2002, I was invited to begin teaching funders at a new [now closed] NYU department, the Center for Philanthropy. At the time, I was only marginally better trained in the philanthropy field than those I was teaching [although by then I already did have 32 years of family, trustee, academic, and professional experience], but I had become convinced that such education mattered – and still does. After all, what arrogance that those of us in the foundation field that we could have all the power, have only self-authenticating wisdom, and no independent barrier to entry to ethically and responsibly give away billions of dollars. [see # 7 below] When invited, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility not only to dig deep into my own diverse and relevant personal and professional background, but, more important, to include the accumulated knowledge of the key institutional players in the field at the time, all of whom I consulted.

Since then, I am proud to say that, on a very part time basis, I have taught well over 2000 funders from about 35 countries at NYU’s Academy for Funder Education [now closed] and, since 2016, at UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy. In addition, I have lectured in 40 countries and in many States, been a guest presenter at innumerable conferences and associations, and advised a significant number of families. The folks I teach are peers: philanthropists and foundation professionals and others of us on the funder side of the table.

Over these 20 years, I have worked hard to fine tune a helpful methodology for both teaching and giving, to articulate key philanthropy ideas, and to continue my own learning as our field expands, evolves, and matures. Moreover, there is no doubt that my work as a quondam philanthropy advisor, now much reduced, has been influenced by my experience with so many hundreds of funders from so many places. It has provided a massive internal database that could never be replicated were we to have developed a more typical philanthropy advisory practice.

¶ 4: In looking back at these 2 decades, here are some lessons learned:

1. Interrelationship between Public Policy and Private Philanthropy Matters: Anyone who has heard me lecture or teach over these 20 years knows that philanthropy cannot be fully understood independent of public policy. Moreover, it is almost impossible to ignore how crucial advocacy is to setting those policies once one is aware of how they impact the role and effectiveness of our philanthropy. I am delighted that this conversation has now finally moved to the center of discourse surrounding philanthropy’s role in society and is being led by many more well-known than I.

2. Every Funder is Unique and Every Funder is the Same: This apparent oxymoron is the reality of our field. People become philanthropically involved for all sorts of reasons. Those individual narratives need to be acknowledged and heard. But once beneath the surface, all philanthropy decisions prove generic. The challenge, as an educator or advisor, is how to get there.

On the international level, this is even more true. Everyplace has its own culture, history, ethos, and legal system. If one doesn’t honor or understand those differences, funders will never pay attention to the classic and generic core competencies that define our field. As mentioned above, I have had the honor of speaking in 40 countries. One must learn to listen very carefully in order to teach effectively and to be taken at all seriously.

3. The Need Continues: A few recent meetings with individual foundations and at speaking engagements have persuaded me that we have only begun scratching the surface of structured and impactful funder education in our sector. The questions of behaviors and practices, roles and responsibilities, expectations and impact that some have been fine tuning for many years are still brand new for many. Far too many philanthropists and funding organizations still function in isolation with little awareness of recommended norms, decision making methodologies, ways of evaluating what or why they are funding, and their larger potential as thoughtful self-aware contributors to a community’s wellbeing. The emerging field of “Philanthropy Service Organizations” [of which we view our Institute for Wise Philanthropy to be an integral part] still only represents those funders who have chosen to affiliate.

4. The Gratification of Helping Funders Learn Best Practices: One of the thrills of teaching is helping the entire potential of our field open up to those who had only a limited understanding. After 20 years, there is a wonderful litany of funders from around the world who have told us what a difference our teaching has made. Needless to say, how we teach has become fine-tuned, and what we teach continues to evolve, but the core competencies recommended by the field in the early aughts continue to inform and frame what every funder should know and what competencies should apply no matter what values, goals, or contexts of one’s funding.

5. The Importance of Affirming Rediscovery: If one has been in the field for a long time, one sees articles offering insights many of us had years ago, or re-inventing approaches that were new many times ago. I have seen numerous articles by other experienced thought-leaders express exasperation with the periodic attention given to those who claim to have invented the proverbial wheel. I know that I myself have to take a deep breath and respect these insights as a reflection of genuine learning. Whether I – or many others – had the same insights or used the same techniques or asked the same questions 2 decades ago or longer matters little to those for whom it is brand new.

Reading articles or press releases or reports that show the most recent innovations in our field, as if they are brand new, may yield a moment of disappointment that those folks never heard of those of us who published or spoke about a lot of those ideas a long time ago, but being an educator has helped me a lot in accepting that as normal. After all, for many centuries, students have read Plato or Maimonides or Shakespeare. Lo and behold, each generation of students comes to much the same understandings as their predecessors. It is the role of an educator to foster those understandings, to encourage those “aha” moments, not to deflate the enthusiasm of newly enlightened readers that what they are now “getting” is old news.

6. The Best Philanthropy Educators have had Multi-Sector Experience: Over the years of organizing courses and attending conferences, I learned something about what kind of background is most likely to produce an effective educator for fellow funders. Of course, good communication skills matter, but beyond that is having a deep range of experience. Those who are identified with only a single, albeit prestigious, foundation may have interesting things to say to the field, but rarely have the scope of experience to respond to the predictable array of funders in any seminar, workshop, or classroom.

7. My Biggest Frustration: This has been my broken record for a long time, and I fear will be long after I disappear from this scene.

It is unconscionable that there is no credential, no formal barrier to professional entry to this field. As suggested in paragraph 2 above, we give away billions of dollars, we are responsible for the well-being of an entire sector, and we can have real influence on public policy. Yet, unlike virtually every other professional field, including fundraisers, one need not know anything about the law, or best practices, or philanthro-ethics to be hired or have a career as a philanthropy consultant, advisor, or program officer. Of course, one cannot legislate what one does with one’s own money, but I believe that there should be a widely recognized credential for professionals that shows that one has knowledge of the basics. [I am not arguing that it need be a precondition to being hired since there are many good reasons to hire folks with other competencies and expertise, but it should be an expectation of every grantmaking professional within the first few years in the field.]

So that no one misunderstands: there is no one right way to give money, no one right set of priorities, etc. But there are many wrong ways. And any of us who have been in this field for a long time know that. I may have my own opinions about what education should inform the credential I would like to see, and I am more than happy to participate in a long overdue discussion since my opinions may not be adequate or even the emerging consensus. This will only work if the field as a whole endorses the validity of a credential and buys into certain core knowledge. [End of soapbox]

8. My Second Biggest Frustration: This one is more personal. I have been surprised by how many, especially those connected to affinity organizations in our field, are suspicious of my motivations to teach, mentor, and provide career advice. I guess I must bear some of the responsibility for this in the way I communicate my commitment, but I have learned that many seem to believe that I teach funders primarily as a way to generate personal business. It is certainly true that over the 20 years, a few, but only a very few of those who took university-based courses have contracted with me for some advisory help, but if I were teaching these courses with that purpose, I certainly have failed and would have stopped a long time ago. [In fact, for a long time, until I was dissuaded from doing so, if a “student” approached me, I would insist on giving the names of at least 2 other advisory firms to whom they should speak.] In any case, after 20 years, I wish I understood why that suspicion seems to persist.

9. Teaching is a superb discipline for keeping your thinking fresh, your knowledge up to date, and your ability to communicate well honed. No, this is not limited to philanthropy education – it is descriptive of what every good educator knows. In my case, teaching has had a salutary impact on my role as a funder, trustee, advisor, and speaker – and each of those roles has had a positive impact on my teaching.

Our field of philanthropy really can and does matter a lot, well beyond what our combined financial assets can accomplish. It is important that we set standards of thoughtfulness, ethics, and self-awareness in doing so. It has been a true honor and privilege to be recognized as someone who has helped reinforce those standards by imparting knowledge in and to my own field in so many settings around the world.

20 years…and counting.

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