Reclaiming Philanthropy’s Role as Changemaker

change 3By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

I see dozens of funders around the country making change—catalyzing new ways of doing and thinkingwithout the support of a sizeable staff.

This kind of change is bigger in scope than starting a new nonprofit organization, or helping a promising organization serve more people. Changemaking by small-staffed funders is transforming how people think about and approach the most important and urgent issues we face. It is bold and daring, and it shifts the status quo.

Can more philanthropists embrace their power to provide the authentic, responsible, and bold leadership necessary for change? I believe so, and I want to challenge you to be a changemaker. 

Let’s begin by exploring the mindset of changemakers.

The Starting Point: Passion and Curiosity

Two qualities put funders on the road to changemaking: passion for an issue and a curiosity to learn everything they can about it.

Changemaking donors, trustees, staff, and family members focus deeply on an issue and use their unique access and perspective as funders to develop knowledge and understanding. They talk with knowledgeable people in business, government, academia, and the nonprofit sector; they visit and engage practitioners; and they ask questions to figure out how things work and identify obstacles to progress.

The drive to understand an issue literally takes these funders on a journey to a level of insight few people—and sometimes no one else—attained. How do philanthropists reach this level of understanding? They make full use of the following:

  • The freedom they have as funders to delve deeply into an issue
  • Their unique position and perspective as funders to see across organizations
  • Their unique access to people in positions of knowledge and power, who provide them with valuable insights
  • The passion to persist and follow the path of learning wherever it goes

Pioneering a Unique Kind of Changemaking

Passion and Curiosity Lead to Vision

Some people are content to understand an issue deeply. Those who become leaders and changemakers push further. Their knowledge makes them thirsty for deeper insight. They are driven to make sense of things, reflect on their knowledge, look for patterns, and connect the dots. They put their learnings together in new ways, rearranging and reordering.

As they push further, they see new ways of doing and thinking—ways of changing how people think about and approach important issues. In doing this, they make imaginative leaps—seeing beyond what is currently possible and leaving assumptions behind.

One funder put it this way: “Leadership in philanthropy is having the ability to take in lots of information, take in others’ perspectives, and focus it for a purpose. The knowledge and perspective gained offers the ability to ‘see places you can’t see.’”

Enter the Mystery of Leadership

Yet how is it that some funders make the journey from insight and vision to bold action, engagement, and leadership? The answer lies in the special qualities of these individuals and even more in the transformative nature of their journey.

Once changemakers begin to understand their issue, a really powerful thing happens: They get hooked on learning. They realize that, as funders, they have unique perspective, unique access to experts, and unique abilities to soak up knowledge. They venture deeper into their issues, until they figure out things no one else has really understood and see how to make change.

Changemakers use all the assets and capabilities at their disposal to make their vision a reality. They venture far beyond making grants to convene, mobilize, commission research, raise public awareness, advocate, matchmake, nudge, cajole, and put pressure on stakeholders to stay on course. They spend as much as 60% of their time, even 70%, out in the community or focused on the issue, becoming activists, brokers, and catalysts. The impact of their non-grant actions often far outweighs that of the dollars they spend.

The most powerful thing about this process is that it acquires its own forward motion. The journey to deeper insight takes funders places, and changes them. It is transformative. Indeed, seeing pathways and leverage points for change, and realizing that change is actually feasible, inspires the powerful qualities that follow.

  • Deep understanding and insight begets confidence and open-mindedness, an ability to see beyond what is currently possible to consider new and untested ideas.
  • The winding, zigzagging nature of the discovery process, with one insight making another possible and the vision for change slowly coming into focus, makes funders flexible, adaptive, and willing to follow the path wherever it leads.
  • Understanding how people, organizations, and political, cultural, and social forces impact their issue and influence one another leads them to lift their sights and think much bigger and more systemically than they had before.
  • All these qualities—confidence, open-mindedness, flexibility, and the ability to think big—nurture a sense of courage, a willingness to take greater calculated risks and to be daring.

In Buffalo, Two Foundation Leaders Follow Their Work to Surprising New Roles

The changemaker travels far in her impact and influence, and in her own growth and development. Many wise, savvy philanthropists among our membership taught us about this transformational journey, and I believe many more philanthropists can be changemakers if they appreciate their unique power to acquire knowledge, engage people, and ask questions. The opportunity is available to everyone— donors, trustees, staff, and family members.

Embrace the idea of a journey and allow yourself to fall in love with an issue and make it your own. Dive in, and see where your learning takes you.

Related resources

Exponent Philanthropy’s 2015 CONNECT Conference | October 5-7 in Chandler, AZ, including the half-day session “Catalyzing Change in Your Community”

Exponent Philanthropy’s resources on philanthropic leadership


Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo

3 thoughts on “Reclaiming Philanthropy’s Role as Changemaker

  1. Pingback: A Citizen and a Small Foundation Awaken a Community’s Ties | PhilanthroFiles

  2. Pingback: 9 Ways to Make a Difference: Strategies From Small-Staffed Foundations | PhilanthroFiles

  3. Pingback: Are You Using Your Power, or Leaving It on the Table? | PhilanthroFiles

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