March 11, 2015
From the President

The Trick of Balance

By Hilary Pearson

There is much talk in the blogs, and other media that cover foundation work, about new mindsets and tools that are reframing foundation work and engaging more foundations in systems change. A good example is the blog from SIGeneration summarizing the talk given by Stephen Huddart of the J. W.McConnell Foundation last November at MaRS in Toronto. In his talk, Stephen talked eloquently about the “shock of the possible” as Canadian foundations begin to use new approaches such as partnerships across sectors in pursuit of transformational change to complex problems. The blog on Stephen’s talk put together by Social innovation Generation also links the reader efficiently to primers on the five tools that Stephen mentions in his talk including social entrepreneurship, social innovation, social technologies, social finance and idea labs to generate solutions to complex social problems.

The possibilities offered by the approaches that Stephen discusses, including collaboration and creative thinking and problem-solving, are exciting to grantmakers. But they obviously require some investment on the part of foundation leaders: energy to learn and time to participate. For many, this can seem daunting. And the talk of the new can be unbalancing. Does the “new” invalidate the “old”? Does a foundation need to be “all in” with new thinking to make a bigger difference? Is there some way to balance the traditional with the innovative approaches in philanthropy?

To keep your balance in the discussion about the “new”, what if you could simply start with a conversation around the table about your key assumptions? Some time ago I read a piece on the need to re-examine our “default settings” in foundation work. It stayed with me because of the neat framing employed by its author Jim Canales, leader of the Barr Foundation in Boston. The framing is done in such a way that, in my view, it could help you generate a useful conversation with your peers. Canales suggests that foundations examine their “default” ways of thinking in four areas:

  • From “what’s new?” to “what’s working?”
  • From logic models, goals and impact measures, to adaptation and learning
  • From “I’ve got this” to “we’ve got this”
  • From “how do I look? to “what do I see?”

In each case, Canales is pointing to ways to balance the strategic conversation for foundations. It is reasonable, he says, to investigate new modes of thinking and doing; but it is also important to invest in leaders to build more durable existing institutions. It is necessary to be clear about your goals but it is also important to focus on feedback and to be flexible in changing those goals when evidence suggests. It is useful to take independent action but even more useful to become a good partner and to seize opportunities to build relationships with other funders. And while it is important to consider a foundation’s reputation and leadership, it is even more important to be humble about serving others through the work. This is sensible advice and not necessarily new. The trick is in the balance of your focus and your energy at any given point! These questions might help you find that balance.

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  • Phil Buchanan

    Great post, Hilary. I think US President Harry S. Truman said, “there is nothing new in life except the history you do not know.”

    That’s probably an over-statement but I think it’s important to remember that some of what seems new in philanthropy has a long history. I wrote about that in the American context here.

    But as Jim Canales implies in his very thoughtful article that you quote from, it’s really not whether something is new or old that matters, it’s whether it works. But even that is not so simple. We tend to focus on “tools” without paying attention to the fact that what is the right tool in a particular case is entirely dependent on the goals and contexts in which folks are working. Kris Putnam-Walkerly makes this point on her blog.

    Thanks, again, for the great post, Hilary.

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