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What’s in a [Brand]name? Introducing the Institute for Wise Philanthropy

February 20th, 2019

Richard Marker

“It is hard to say ‘no’ graciously; it is even harder to say ‘yes’ wisely.” [from “Four Laws of Philanthropy: Hubris vs. Humility”]

It seems that the philanthropy sector is awash in a re-branding frenzy. Just this week, as this was being written, 2 prominent organizations in our field, Guidestar and the Foundation Center announced that they will henceforth be Candid. Not very long ago, 2 organizations of which we are members changed their brand names: The Association of Small Foundations became Exponent Philanthropy. Grants Managers Network became Peak Grantmaking. I am told that another organization of which we are members, WINGS, is considering a name change as well. The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers has become the United Philanthropy Forum. If one adds local organizations, the list could go on and on.

In the scheme of all of this, our re-brand is quite modest. It is not intended to signify any change in what we do, only how to make it more clear to colleagues and others in the philanthropy sector around the USA and around the world.

The name of our firm derives from the quote with which this post opens. It is from one of the first published articles I wrote on philanthropy practice and affect, about 2 decades ago. I was far from the first to make the various observations in that article, but it got a lot of attention – and helped launch my career as a speaker, educator, and advisor that began a couple of years later, after the foundation I was heading closed. In 2002, I joined my wife, Mirele Goldsmith, PhD, an independent program evaluator, and we launched “Wise Philanthropy.” We have also had the pleasure of periodically joining other outstanding colleagues who have been partners in particular projects.

We chose the brand “Wise Philanthropy” to convey the message embedded in the quote. We wanted to help people learn how to make decisions that were correct for them, informed by the highest ethics, the best practices, and the goals that they wanted to achieve. Wisdom is more than knowledge, but it does require knowledge; it is more than experience, but it benefits from experience; it goes beyond intelligence, but it is hard to have smarts without some smart. It is taking all of that and applying it to the often hard but extraordinarily meaningful decisions that every thoughtful funder must make.

Subsequently, since much of our work is as philanthropy support educators to the funder field, we started referring to our educational portfolio as the Wise Philanthropy Institute.

Why a name change?

As said above, in the scheme of these things, our brand name adjustment is exceedingly modest. But over time we have learned that “Wise Philanthropy” defined our aspirations, but not adequately what we do, and we spend a lot of time explaining what that is, and, as important, what we don’t do.

Why did we decide to re-brand? Well, if one is asked the same questions over and over, it is clear that our title isn’t exactly right. Too often we have to explain at least some of these seven areas.

1. Our business model is a boutique/niche approach so even in the field of philanthropy advisors and evaluators and educators, what we do isn’t typical.

2. We don’t work for or have the family name “Wise”. Many people ask who the Wises are. Hopefully, the change will make it clear that “Wise” is an adjective, not a noun.

3. We don’t manage anyone’s investments – although we are sometimes asked to help think through investment policy concepts that help align with values. And since we often present at investment conferences, it is an easy but mistaken assumption.

4. We don’t manage anyone’s giving or even propose grantees. Since most philanthropy advisors and advisory groups do help manage at least some part of the grantmaking process, it is another easy misperception. If a potential client is looking for those services, we are more than happy to refer them to other first-rate groups.

5. We don’t accept retainer contracts since we want any recommendations to be fully independent and never appear to be self-serving. To be clear, retainer arrangements are responsible and widespread; our model is not a judgement about those who do so. We recognize that our business model is very untypical and often surprises funders and foundations who have worked with other firms or advisors.

6. We don’t do any fundraising nor accept any development related contracts. Some professional advisors are comfortable working on both sides of the table; we have chosen to restrict our work to those who give, not those who raise.

7. We are not connected to a firm with a similar name based in Switzerland. They approached us when they first started to see if there was an IP concern, but since they have a broader organizational consulting practice than we aspire to, we felt that we were not really competitors. [This issue arises in Europe but not in the USA.]

The re-branded Institute for Wise Philanthropy allows us to emphasize our commitment to help people learn how to make appropriate decisions independent of us. At the end of the day, we realized, we are educators and trustees, teaching HOW to make decisions, not primarily to recommend decisions; HOW to improve practice or programs, not primarily to prove their worth; HOW to set policies for grantmaking or practice or investments, not primarily to be the ones who set those policies. We choose to emphasize the learning in our model, whether in our directly contracted advisory work or in our educational work or in our writing, since it suggests a more iterative role and constantly evolving knowledge. We are successful when our clients or “students” or fellow trustees can implement what we have taught or advised independent of us.

What is it, then, that we do?

We are committed to improving the quality of the field both as educators and as advisors. For over two decades we have devoted ourselves to addressing
• funder culture,
• funder alignment,
• improving organizational learning,
• funder and organizational ethics,
• strategy development, especially in the intergeneration and succession spaces,
• “equity” screens for funder behavior,
• utilization based program evaluations.

Much of this has now become mainstream in our sector – first rate and well-known organizations such as GEO, CEP, NCRP and others have made that so and deserve a huge amount of credit. We are quite proud that we have been addressing these issues for many years. Hopefully, with our new focus, we will give more visibility to our thinking to engage with our field more collaboratively, and at a more formative stage.

We do our work in a variety of contexts:

a. We work directly with funders as advisors or trustees to help them learn about and how to implement funding and policy decisions within their own context, and how, when, or if to use appropriate evaluation methods with their grantees.

b. We educate funders from around the world at both NYU and at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High impact Philanthropy and, over the years, have done so at numerous other universities and organizational settings.

c. We educate funders and foundations’ trustees and staff within their own foundations.

d. We speak extensively to affinity groups, philanthropy associations, and at conferences in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

e. We write about philanthropy, its challenges, its changes, its opportunities, and, yes, its foibles.

f. We are sources of informed opinion by journalists and have been quoted in many periodicals both within and outside of the USA.

g. We produce proprietary educational “cases”, “how-to” workbooks, and other material of use to funders.

Shortly, we will be rolling out a new website, be making 20 years of articles and our workbooks more widely accessible, and re-positioning our blog so that we can implement our expanded commitments to the field. As always, we welcome your feedback and inquiries, and look forward to long-time mutual collaborations in pursuit of what philanthropy stands for and should help enable: a more just and equitable world.

It may indeed still “be hard to say ‘yes’ wisely” – but with this re-branding, we are renewing our commitment to help our colleagues and our field do exactly that.

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