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#379 – Post COVID-19: The Future of Funder Education

May 20th, 2020

Richard Marker

Full disclosure: As discussed below, we have been educating philanthropists, families, and other funders in many settings and under many different sponsorships since 2000. Until now we have resisted suggestions to offer funder education courses or seminars directly through our Institute for Wise Philanthropy. For the first time, we are seriously contemplating offering limited-attendance on-line workshops. This post shares some of our thinking as we move ahead with our planning. To be clear: these webinar/workshops are not intended to supplant the superb funder education program at the University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy with which we are delighted to be connected. However, that program is restricted to principals, trustees, or chief professional decision makers of grantmakng institutions. For all other funders, please keep in touch and watch for our offerings.

Between zooming and cooking, there is still a lot of time to write and think these days. Thank you to so many of you who have commented both publicly and privately on my numerous posts on various media regarding funders’ roles now and in the “next normal” period. There are many more pressing issues at this moment in time than how one educates those who give money, but it is how I have spent a good chunk of my professional life over the last 20 years so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it has been on my mind during the last couple of months.

To remind readers who may not be familiar: Since the foundation I was heading closed in 2002, I have chosen to spend a good deal of time responding to requests to offer workshops and courses for families, philanthropists, and foundations in many places around the world. Some of those have been at NYU and UPenn, some for associations and what are now called Philanthropy Support Organizations, and some for individual funders and foundations.

When I first started doing this in a formal way, not wanting to develop a top down curriculum, I consulted with the organizations most prevalent in our field at the time: the Council on Foundations, the Association of Small Foundations [now Exponent Philanthropy], the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and the Forum on Regional Grantmakers [now the United Philanthropy Forum.] The courses were then jointly conceptualized by what was then known as the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers [now PhilanthropyNY.]. I asked them all one simple question: “What should a funder know?”

There was so much alignment in their answers that it was relatively easy to create a curriculum based on consensus “core competencies” of grantmaking. As the world and our field have evolved over the years, the curriculum has been updated regularly, but the basic concepts and structure have remained viable and vital. I am proud to say that several thousand funders around the world have been direct beneficiaries of that model. Further, it significantly informed my own boutique “philanthropy advisory” model, and it is the underpinning of my quite extensive international speaking.

Until now.

1. Curriculum.
So much has been called into question over the last couple of months, it is forcing me to think about what philanthropy education for funders should look like in the “next normal.” Has this fine-tuned and well-tested curriculum become too dated for funders who have been rethinking strategies, changing ways of relating to their communities and grantees, accepting the overwhelming reality of the systemic disconnects and need for public advocacy, and even what it means for us to have independent and autonomous decision making about where our public benefit resources should be spent? Or, conversely, has all of this reinforced the value of such a structured, sequential, and carefully considered curriculum as a basis for knowing how to make the hard decisions with which we are all faced?

2. Medium:
A lesser but no less challenging question is what the optimal viable medium for this kind of education should now be. 100% of what I have done until now has been predicated on “in-person.” The occasional webinars I have presented have all been for groups where everyone knew each other and had prior in-person experiences. Group learning among funders with an educator in the room, is very different than a group of pictures on a screen with an active chat button. Philanthropy education for funders, built around the core competencies mentioned above, has been most credible when a funder hears the questions other funders are asking, what challenges they face, how they respond to the same sets of questions. And what about confidentiality? Funders want to talk in safe, discreet, and confidential spaces. [see #3b below]. Have we developed sufficient confidence in newer media that this discretion can comfortably migrate – or would it, ipso facto, be one of the inevitable losses that would accrue to accepting fully on-line courses?

3. Educators and Students:
Moreover, given emerging issues identified by such initiatives as “Participatory Budgeting”, “Trust Based Philanthropy”, DEI practices, etc., not only must we examine the content of the curriculum but also both who should be imparting knowledge and who should be in the room.

a. Who should teach:
On the whole, our field has relied on funders to teach funders. To be sure, not every funder is a good educator – something that anyone who has attended sessions at philanthropy conferences can attest. However, a good educator who is a funder with multiple experiences has a much deeper internal data base to respond to the realities of other funders. As our field has become more diverse and the relevant experiences and values are expanded, it raises the expectations of what the content should be and the challenges of determining who should provide it. This issue is probably the easier of the two challenges to address. After all, over the years, we have readily added issues of equity in both our philanthro-ethics and in our strategy units. And there is a long history of inviting co-presenters with a variety of backgrounds and expertise to be co-educators, many of whom reflected much of the now-current diversity lens.

b. Who should be in the room:
The question of whom we should invite/permit into the funder education room is far more complicated. All of us on the funder side are well aware of being “walking dollar signs.” There are few places we can enter without being solicited. Over the years of teaching funders, I am consistently asked to guarantee that no one hoping to raise or manage funds will be there, and every philanthropy conference requires a similar commitment from all attendees and speakers. Sadly, that concern is not ill-founded; I have seen it abused when the participation rules have been loosened or when someone simply cannot resist the temptation to sell to wealthy funders. Yet if we are now talking about developing a new relationship between funders and nonprofits, if we take seriously the “nothing about us without us” mantra, if we believe that our advocacy requires a full mutuality, is the implication that we need to develop a new model that removes the divide and invites funders and the npo/ngo side of the sector together? Or would the funder community consider that a step too far? Is there a way to have separate education for funders precede subsequent joint learning?

4. Systemic Change.

The final question has to do with the centrality of systemic change as a new primary essential core competence. We have always underscored that understanding the interconnection between public policy and private philanthropy is a sine qua non for contextualizing where our field is and where it has come from. Once aware, we have felt, it would be hard to make a grant, any grant, without thinking about what its relationship to existing or preferred public policy. Is it better to support that local food pantry or support advocacy for increased SNAP funding? Or both? Is it better to fund that in-school arts project or to advocate for the restoration of those funds? Or both? You understand.

But COVID-19 has laid bare the scope of systemic dysfunction that leads to food insecurity, fiscal uncertainty, health-care vulnerability, the fragility of our cultural institutions, and yes, instability of our civil liberties and civil society. It is one thing to make sure that funders know of the legitimacy of advocacy funding; that is something we have taught all along. Perhaps, though, we must now say that any philanthropy education that doesn’t start with the centrality of our role in addressing systemic questions is insufficient and doesn’t fully acknowledge our unique role.
….
There are a lot of changes that await us as we delicately and thoughtfully move into a “next normal.” Those changes do and will touch every part of our lives. If there has ever been a time when our philanthropy work matters, it is now. It matters best when that work is informed by a deep and profound understanding of what our roles should be and how we can best play those roles. We have endorsed that mandate for a long time. Looking at the “next normal,” it would be irresponsible for those of us who are philanthropy educators to avoid the serious discussion about what a funder should know now.

Especially now.

Dear reader: Your thoughts and reactions will certainly inform both our continuing work and our new offerings going forward. I urge you to share them with us and your colleagues.

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