April 24th, 2020
Over the years, there have been both great advantages and great disadvantages to being an independent voice in the philanthro-eco-system.
After the foundation of which I was CEO closed in 2002, I made the choice to play an independent role as an educator, advisor, speaker, writer, and thinker about philanthropy. Having been an employee – albeit at a fairly high level – for the entirety of my professional life until that point, I decided to see what it would be like to be my own boss and to take full responsibility for my own words, involvements, and my own professional destiny. [for those readers who want to discuss the risks/rewards of that choice as they may apply to you, please be in touch directly – we can set up a time to chat.]
On the whole, that choice was a good one. I discovered that there were real opportunities to say and do things on both a professional and volunteer leadership level that might have required approval – or disapproval – in prior contexts. There were invitations to speak and teach in many places around the world that may not have been possible with executive or organizational obligations. And, perhaps most telling, I discovered that people were suddenly hearing my “voice” that, in the past, seems to have been hidden beneath a subconscious political sensitivity to the institutions in whose employ I was – even if I was the CEO.
There are also some significant disadvantages, though. In much of the philanthropy world, the question is “whom do you represent” determines which boards you sit on, which committees you are invited to, which task forces include you. While I surely have sat on many boards, committees and task forces, there were many more on which I might have wished to be a part that were addressing matters close to my heart and my expertise. And while I am not complaining about the depth of our own pockets, they are not deep enough to warrant others automatically making space as an independent player.
In the current COVID 19 context, this reality means that there are many statements, conversations, webinars, and conceptual considerations to which I am an outsider. When I – or our Institute for Wise Philanthropy – is invited, we eagerly participate, or sign on, or endorse, but rarely are we at the drafting table. I wish it were otherwise, but it does provide an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to take a broader view of what is happening now, what probably will happen, and what must not be allowed to happen to our field, and our nation as a whole.
I don’t know any more than any reader does about the sane and reasonable timeline for our current quarantine. I do know that it has exposed and underscored deep and abiding issues for all of us, philanthropists and philanthropoids included.
It has underscored that the human need for connection encourages creative uses of existing technology in ways that will surely change the way we do workplace and the way we do family – even when our in-person lives return. It has underscored that we do have control over our climate if we behave in ways that reduce pollution and the waste of natural resources, that public behavior matters – and that public policy matters more. [While I am sure deniers will continue to deny, the overwhelming evidence of cleaner skies over cities around the world is only one proof-text among many.] It has proven that the absence of a reasonable and equitable national health system is a death sentence for too many, and an injustice for all. It has proven, as if such proof were still necessary, that underlying and systemic racism – and other forms of xenophobic hatred such as anti-Asian-bias, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia are too close to the surface and too present in attitude, behavior, and impact. And it has proven that American claim of equal access and equal rights are all too hollow in the face of overwhelming evidence of a permanent underclass. [I am sure others can add to this list.]
This moment in time has also shown the vulnerability of organizations and institutions in stark and ominous ways. A society that chooses to rely on the voluntary sector to provide for essential human services, to address food insecurity, to enable much of our education system, and to care for our infirm and elderly suddenly finds that a voluntary sector can only do so much to provide palliatives to a deeply fragile system.
Lesson #1 What Must Change: We must not return to a normal which maintains systemic injustice. There are structural inequities, there are conceptual injustices, and there are entrenched bigotries that are destructive and simply wrong. There may be room for discussion about how to redress these systemic matters, but not whether they must be redressed. Without doing so, I am afraid that our nation will implode from within.
It is true that our sector, i.e., the funder community, has responded with alacrity and impressively to our current disruptions. Many foundations have made new funds available, many have made – at least temporary – changes in the way we do business, many have recognized anew that our missions cannot be fulfilled without profound trust in the nonprofits that implement our funding, and many have joined together in unprecedented collaborations and joint efforts. The scope of what needs to be done to respond and rebuild is massive and far beyond the capacity of our sector, but it is certainly true that we can stand tall in our response.
A larger and more long-term question has to do with sustainability: of the nonprofit world, of our altered tactics, and of the world as a whole. No serious person imagines that we will return to an unchanged world – but that doesn’t mean that our practices will or should change. Or if they should, in which ways? And who should decide?
For example, I would hope that no funder ignores the evident and demonstrable class and race chasm in the USA. But even if one recognizes that consideration of “DEI” needs to inform our grantmaking, there are various credible ways to do so: advocating public policy change, supporting intermediary organizations, funding local direct service entities, etc. I personally endorse certain practices and associate myself with the joint statement of 700 US foundations about utilization of our funds at this extraordinary time. Yet I continue to feel that, in the rush to provide resources where they are desperately needed – a flexibility that is indeed a crucial value-added of our field, we don’t surrender our other value-added asset – the ability to have strategies that take a thoughtful long view independent of contemporaneous political pressures. After all, as we look back to lesson #1, it is certain that the systemic societal inequities will outlast the pandemic and will demand every bit as much of our attention and funding. To do our work well, we need to combine both of those values – flexibility and perspective. [I will be offering a recorded webinar on this subject to be available for public viewing on Monday, 27 April.]
Lesson #2 – What Shouldn’t Change: The philanthropy field must continue to play its crucial role as a funder and thought leader. There may be exigencies that require short term funding adjustments, but our strategies should reflect longer term endorsement of our distinctive role. Hopefully, all of us have a strategy that allow both.
If it is true that our strategies should not be cavalierly disregarded as events unfold, it is also clear that it is time to underscore many of the best practices that have developed in our field. For many of us, as my clients and students know, these practices are well established; for many others, the emergence of the work of CEP, GEO, NCRP, and TBP are welcome correctives to deeply entrenched and often out of date practices.
To take just a few examples:
a. There needs to be an open and honest relationship with grantees and potential grantees. . We want to know what a grantee really needs to be successful, what is in the way of that happening, and what measures will truly show those things. And only funders can make that a safe place to be. Many funders are clueless about how the power imbalance, even when unintended, distorts that openness and gets in the way of an honest dialogue.
b. There needs to be a simplifying of what we ask of applicants for our funds. In teaching this over the years, I have learned that most funders want to ask as much as possible but only use a small portion of that information to make a decision. Why impose that extra work on the applicants, and ourselves, if it doesn’t really inform our decision?
c. Most grantees would benefit from unrestricted grants and most projects need more than one year to implement. There are important exceptions to both, to be sure, but our norm should be that, if we trust a grantee sufficiently to invest our money, we should give them the greatest chance to utilize their expertise.
d. We need to assure that our grantmaking enhances the professionalization of any program or organization we fund and not inadvertently reinforce the shameful pattern of undercapitalizing the sector we presumably believe in.
e. There needs to be proportionality of what we ask and require of our grantees, reflecting the size of our grants, and the capacity of the grantee. It may seem equal to ask every grantee for a quarterly report, but not equitable if one of those grantees is a 3-person neighborhood-based startup and another a well-established research university.
Lesson #3 – What Should Change: Best practices in the funder world have made major progress toward more open, honest, streamlined, and constructive relationships between funders and grantees. This doesn’t render strategy irrelevant, only that this way of thinking and behaving is likely to achieve a funder’s desire strategy in a more effective and less burdensome manner.
As we are now thinking through what will emerge, it is crucial for our field to take the lessons of these weeks and apply them to what will become normal and normative. Our work won’t end when the doors are open again but will call for us to play even more crucial roles during the forthcoming weeks and months – to do what we can and should do best.