June 7, 2015 From the President

What Is Philanthropy For?

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At a recent conference of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Phil Buchanan, the leader of the CEP posed a pointed question to the assembled foundation leaders and staff members. It was not the question that might have been expected: how can we be more effective at what we do in foundation philanthropy? Rather, it was a deeper question: what is philanthropy for? What is our broader vision of what we are trying to achieve? To what end? And in my view, there is a related question: what is it that foundations are uniquely suited for?

The conference tackled these questions very thoughtfully indeed. One of the clear themes in the discussion was the importance of thinking systemically. Foundations can use the advantages of a long-term horizon, and a lack of immediate pressure from voters or shareholders, to bring attention and resources to work on changing systems, not just individual issues.

Here are some of the key messages that I noted from the conference discussions about foundation leadership and systems change:

  • Our global systemic problems (such as climate change) are so urgent that to leave any asset untapped for mission is irresponsible. Foundations can use reputational influence, relational influence and intellectual influence to change the systemic conversation (an example is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund decision to divest from fossil fuels…a possible global catalyst to divestment and climate change discussions?)
  • To tackle systems change, foundations must stop being “lone rangers”…and get involved in coordinated strategies with players in government and business. Collaboration pushes insight, makes it possible for foundations to be challenged and to think differently. “It’s important to see the whole and not just the parts; don’t come to the table with strategies worked out in advance.”
  • Foundations need to be more open to input… from their grantees and from their ultimate beneficiaries. “Imagine if foundations were routinely more open about what we do, how we work, why we make the decisions we do and the lessons we have learned – both the good and the bad?” Be rigorous about choosing goals, but open and adaptive as you go based on your learning.
  • Foundations can and must take on public policy change. It can take years and very patient funding but success is possible (an example is the change to marriage equality laws in the United States). Public policy change is the tip of the systemic change arrow.
  • What does success look like in our sector? We can’t solve the big problems by ourselves – poverty, climate change. But we can find success through engaging in many different initiatives, paying attention and adapting our strategies, sharing data with grantees, with each other. Data and learning are both for ourselves and for the field. Every performance measure must help us make smarter decisions and advance field-wide learning. Let’s help our partners with everything they really need to do their work, work across sectors, lead generously and with others.

For more on the insights drawn from the CEP gathering, read the blog post Together or Alone: Can Philanthropy Effectively Tackle Systems?

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