A New Story for Philanthropy

Tom Callanan Posted by Tom Callanan.

Tom Callanan is a writer, group process facilitator, consultant, and cofounder of the Collective Wisdom Initiative.

A New Story for Philanthropy

photography by Nevada Wier, by permission

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, artist and philanthropist, Peter Buffett, the son of the 4th wealthiest person in the world, wrote a scathing critique of the current philanthropic system calling it: “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”. As someone who’s worked for more than two decades in many areas of philanthropy, including 16 years as a foundation program officer, I think Buffett has a point.  And more importantly, I think we’re beginning to discover some potent solutions to the problems to which Buffett is pointing.

Buffett believes that instead of addressing the symptoms of current problems as is the practice with most philanthropy, “money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market.”  “It’s time for a new operating system,” says Buffett. “Something built from the ground up. New code.” In other words, a completely new story.

What is this new story and operating system? How do we begin building it? Are there those who’ve already begun? Buffett’s piece leaves us with more questions than answers.

But some answers are beginning to emerge.

In my decades in philanthropy, I’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with some amazing social change leaders. In the process, I’ve learned some galvanizing and disturbing things about how philanthropists are actually seen and function in the world of social change. To take a closer look at what specifically needs to change and how to go about it, I’ve begun to convene a small group of individual donors, foundation executives and non-profit leaders as part of the Wisdom Funders’ Network. The expressed purpose of this endeavor is to articulate new stories in philanthropy. Although the inquiry has just begun, I offer the following six, high-leverage pathways for creating these new stories.  These pathways, not surprisingly, open new possibilities and turn much of standard philanthropic practice on its head.

  1. Invest in and learn from transformational initiatives: Typically there are a dozen or so thought leaders in every field of endeavor (education, the environment, social justice etc.) who are providing the most innovative thinking related to the transformation of those fields. Their ideas are often not yet recognized by the mainstream and their organizations are often small and in desperate need of funding.  Do whatever it takes to find them. Fund them. Get as close to them as you can.  Not so that you can direct their efforts, but so that you and your organization can become a part of their transformational process and be personally informed and transformed by it. The best partners and mentors for helping philanthropy find its way to a new system can be found within this group of grantees who are practiced at systems transformation.
  2. Transform ourselves: When I’ve spent time on the non-profit side of the equation, I’ve discovered that here’s a common understanding that many non-profit leaders share with each other that they rarely share with their funders: Cutting edge projects are often compromised by the limited ways of thinking, managing, evaluating and reporting that are imposed by donors. This seldom articulated view suggests that the philanthropic world’s capacity to affect real change in the world depends first and foremost on its capacity to change itself.  If this is true, how do we best boost the awareness level of donors?  There are a host of scientifically validated mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual practices that help to facilitate inner awareness and change. Given what’s at stake in our world today and the enormous impact that philanthropy promises, I wonder if engaging in these practices on a regular basis is no longer a personal choice for philanthropic professionals but a professional obligation. If we want to transform the world, we need to actively and humbly work on transforming ourselves.
  3. Utilize different ways of knowing: Traditional philanthropy is governed by a social engineering mindset that’s largely goal oriented, rational, linear, and strategic.  The job of creating a new story involves solving problems beyond the level of thinking that created them. Success at this game usually involves temporarily short-circuiting the rational mind and engaging in other ways of knowing that come from the heart, the body, intuition, relationships, and engagement with the arts, nature, and Spirit. It also involves including a diversity of perspectives of race, age, gender, ethnicity, and nationality.  Innovative companies such as Google know this and their workplaces are full of diverse, alive, vital, youthful and creative people who are engaging all parts of themselves with the help of workout centers, meditation spaces, bowling alleys, and dance classes.  If foundations are going to realize their potential of providing, as Buffett says, “the best risk capital out there,” they’re going to need to utilize every way of knowing and every perspective possible. This inevitably means diversifying their staffs and boards and restructuring their offices to look a lot more like Google and a lot less like Morgan Stanley.
  4. Transform our relationships: Standard philanthropic practice dictates that donors maintain distance from their grantees to avoid becoming emotionally involved and potentially compromising their ability to make objective evaluations and rational decisions. This stance may be the right one for many straightforward, social service delivery initiatives. But for projects that are seeking new ways of thinking and that are guided by forces beyond traditional strategy, such an approach limits and even dampens innovation on both sides. Such projects often welcome donor input, but from the inside not the outside. In other words, donors in search of real change need to jump into the pool and build real, honest, vulnerable, trusting partnerships and loving friendships with their grantees. They need to humbly put their assumptions and limiting belief systems onto the table for testing alongside everyone else’s. They need to bring their full hearts into the mix and learn that doing so doesn’t compromise their capacity to make rational and sometimes tough funding decisions when the need arises. If anything, intimate involvement with grantees assures that donors will know first hand what’s really going on. Grantees will also know more about what’s going on with their donors and will begin to provide valuable feedback to donors as to how they can best fund for emergence and innovation.
  5. Transform our foundations: Standard foundation protocol can be conservative, rule-bound and overly focused on protecting, and perpetuating it’s own structure, identity, and reputation. Usually, the longer a foundation has existed, the larger and more rigid it’s structure which makes risk taking and innovation difficult, even for its top executives.  What would happen if foundation leaders and board members began to reclaim their organizations, either by dismantling rigid and calcified aspects of their current structures– one form and one standard procedure at a time, or by creating separate “exploratory funds” for high risk initiatives that operate outside standard practices?  What would happen if the small and midsized foundations of the world, that are nimble and not burdened by size and convention, stopped trying to emulate the big players and started recognizing their power and responsibility to lead the way? What would happen if individual donors, who operate outside of formal organizational structures altogether, recognized how much the world needs their autonomy and creativity, and joined forces with other donors in networks, affinity groups and giving circles that together created a system of influence that informed, inspired and helped to galvanize the entire field?
  6. There’s no “new story,” only “new stories”:  There are a number of foundation-sponsored efforts currently underway, the Wisdom Funders’ Network among them, that are aimed at articulating a new vision, dream, story, or narrative for both philanthropy and the world. These are worthy and valuable efforts only so far as they don’t attempt to develop one definitive new story. Humanity has been fighting wars for thousands of years over which story is the right one. What if the defining element of the new story is that it’s treated as a verb rather than a noun? Where our focus is no longer on trying to discover the “what” of the new story, but instead on the process of sharing our different stories so as to bring greater diversity and creativity into the mix in discovering and storying our way forward together toward a brighter future?

I offer the above perspectives with humility and a request for direct and honest feedback and dialogue. What else do we need to pay attention to as we go about re-inventing philanthropy? I’m curious to hear about your story and your experience.

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