The Pulse—Big Ideas: Guiding Donors to Social Change, Empowering Nonprofits, Renewing Civic Life

The PulseBy Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

I regularly explore trends influencing philanthropy by spotlighting articles, reports, and essays in the media. I cast a wide net, venturing beyond philanthropy and traditional topics to consider a variety of ideas, innovations, debates, and critiques. Read previous posts in the series  

Lack of Guidance, Not Lack of Desire, May Be Limiting Social Change Philanthropy 

A recent study by Foundation Source and reflections by experienced philanthropic advisors shine a light on challenges faced by high net worth donors in diversifying their philanthropic investments. Donors’ penchant for giving to large, traditional, well-known organizations such as major universities, hospitals, and religious organizations may not always be their first preference, but a kind of default choice resulting from difficulties identifying smaller, lesser-known social change organizations. Funding social change takes more time and work; requires shedding a measure of privacy to go out into public to learn; and often requires taking on more risk. 

Nevertheless, the possibility of making significant progress on difficult and urgent issues donors care about, holds great appeal. There is tremendous frustration, experts say. 

Neither financial advisors nor the vast amount of information and data available online seems to be meeting the need for this type of guidance. High net worth donors may be looking for a network of trusted people—including peers—who are deeply knowledgeable about opportunities to advance social change and who can listen carefully, engage in discussions of values and goals, and guide donors without self-interest.

Getting Real About Funding Impact 

Dan Pallotta sees a damaging contradiction in the public’s attitude toward nonprofit organizations. On the one hand, donors expect nonprofits to operate lean, minimizing fundraising and operating costs; on the other, we expect charities to work harder and on a bigger scale to make real progress in addressing society’s urgent problems. To empower nonprofits to achieve what we expect of them, Pallotta asserts that we must invest boldly in developing nonprofits’ capacity and in their growth—just as we invest in building for-profit companies. To do this, we must take more smart risks.  

“If you kill innovation in charitable fundraising, you can’t raise more money. If you can’t raise more money, you can’t grow. If you can’t grow, you can’t possibly solve social problems that are many orders of magnitude larger than you. Simple as that.

If the sector is not given the freedom to fail, fear and desperation is all they have to work with. If charities are inspired by the public instead of being frightened of them we will start to see them solving big problems, and that’s all the public ever wanted in the first place.”

Finding Common Ground in America, By Talking About What We Value

Growing polarization in America is well documented. According to the Pew Research Center, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines—and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive—than at any point in the last two decades.” Also, many citizens feel the country is on the wrong track. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, “A total of 53 percent said the country was headed in the wrong direction, while only 31 percent said it was headed in the right direction.”

At the same time, polls reveal that the majority of Americans do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views, and many “believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.” The challenge for those who seek greater dialogue and unity is that the quiet majority do not make their views strongly felt. They remain “on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”

Parker Palmer, founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, sees great opportunity in this quiet majority to start conversations, cross political lines, and build consensus on improving opportunity for every American. Palmer says we need to begin these conversations at the most individual and local level, by creating “safe spaces” for dialogue about what we love and value. He sees this work as “infrastructure repair,” as essential to the country’s vitality as rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges. And though such conversations may seem personal, they are also a form of civic action. “Like all infrastructure repair, it will take time and patience and involve a lot of ‘invisible’ activity. But for lots of us, it’s a close-at-hand form of meaningful political activity.”

Download a discussion guide for starting civic conversations

Using Your Freedom and Privilege as a Funder to Speak Out

Looking back on her first year-plus as leader of the California Wellness Foundation, Judy Belk takes stock of something she realized about her job—the tremendous privilege, freedom, and influence she enjoys as a foundation leader, and the leverage and opportunity these assets offer her to make change.

“There’s a lot of flattery that comes your way when you’re in a position of power, influence, and money. If I let it, it could change me in ways that wouldn’t be good for me or my work. But if I use that influence wisely, I could marshal it to open closed doors, shine a spotlight on unmet needs, and speak out on issues that might otherwise go unheard.”

“Don’t be a wimp. That’s a note to self: part lesson and part reminder. If I can’t lead with courage in this job, then I’m a true wimp.

Every day, my job is to get up and think about how I can get $35 million out the door to individuals and communities in need. I have the good fortune of reporting to a supportive board. I don’t have to worry about impatient shareholders who might sell my stock, angry voters who will kick me out of office, or losing sleep over how I’m going to make payroll. I’m well aware that I’m in a privileged place. I need to get more comfortable with fearlessly speaking out and acting on principles of justice and equity and doing the right thing—even if I’m standing alone or ruffle a few feathers.”

Andy-CarrollSenior 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.

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