April 11, 2017
From the President

Uncertainty and Proximity: A Challenge for Philanthropy

By Hilary Pearson

Grant Oliphant, CEO of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, gave a powerful opening talk at the recent conference of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Boston. Oliphant was commenting on the “strange times” in which American philanthropy finds itself, in light of the political developments of the last twelve months. His statement (which is posted in its entirety on The Heinz Endowments website) makes a strong case for foundations reaching out as never before to speak out, to help others speak, to collaborate and to build human connections.

Either philanthropy is about building a more inclusive, sustainable and just society for each and every person in this country and in this world, or it is a mere random agglomeration of money and ego dressed up in the feel-good finery of charity.”

In this blog, I quote at length from Oliphant’s talk, as he has made such an eloquent summation of the call to action for philanthropy. It is a call that I believe should resonate just as much in Canada, regardless of the differing political contexts.

Oliphant believes that the philanthropic field faces three challenges today:

First to come into a new relationship with uncertainty. If the first great wave of improving foundation effectiveness was about holding ourselves accountable to strategies and metrics and learning from our experiences, I am increasingly convinced the second great wave will be about holding onto that rigor while letting go of the illusion of control that both it and our privileged position encourage.

Second, to connect our work more deeply with meaning and purpose. We have a charming faith in the obvious virtue of our goals, and sometimes we seem to assume that if we just explained them in more detail or with more vigor everyone else would understand. And how’s that working out? How willing are we to genuinely “bear witness,” to hear and tell and honor the stories of people whose lives connect with the issues we are working on? To understand what moves them, what tight bundles of dreams and fears make up their sense of purpose?  How do we support a “narrative of shared meaning”? 

Thirdly, to start seeing ourselves more in the picture we are trying to affect.  Our field’s delusion of separateness serves only to protect us from braving the exercise of our full power: the marshaling of our credibility, our individual and collective voices, the voices of those we support, our influence, our much-bragged about capacity to take risks others can only dream of. The folly of that has never been more apparent than it is now, which I think is why we see so many of us rising to speak out, to help others speak, to collaborate with each other, to build networks and movements, and to fund the sort of independent journalism, legal action, and policy work that these times demand.

We are doing this work at a time when fundamental issues of human belonging are on the table, and not just because of politics but also because of how technology is changing our relationships with each other, with work, and even with ourselves. All around us questions are being asked that will define the future in the most sweeping of ways: Who is in “our” community, who is inside our circle of “we,” who do we need to care about, and who will we exclude with walls, bans, hatred, violence and, perhaps most terrifying of all, our worsening indifference?

Oliphant’s reference to who is within the circle of “we” connects in a very timely way with the themes and discussions we are planning for our Montreal fall symposium. We will ask ourselves as he does, how we hear not only our own voices but the voices of those most affected by injustice? How can we effectively question our own assumptions and overcome the imbalances in power and privilege that we have? And how do we find and share what works in community? We have opportunities to learn by listening, and to create more space for others to speak in ways that will contribute to our own more effective work.  In a year of uncertainty in the world, as Oliphant exhorts, we can keep moving forward anyway, to keep learning and growing, to keep striving for improvement by being more proximate, more connected and more “in the picture”.

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