New Year, New Ways of Seeing

I love it when a writer inspires you to view familiar things in a new light.  Lucy Bernholz’s review of the book Philanthropy in America: A History by Olivier Zunz does this well. 

"Many of us have a mental picture of nonprofits and philanthropy as one of three circles in a Venn Diagram, the other two being government and commercial enterprise. The circles overlap in the center, but each sector has its own functions,” writes Bernholz.  But “do-good” efforts don’t always neatly fit into those circles–she cites nonprofit producers of wildly successful software products, for-profit social enterprises, and other “boundary crossing” examples.  She notes that Zunz’s book similarly blurs the boundaries of that familiar Venn Diagram that many carry in their heads by a braiding together various strands of philanthropy history, from the original Easter Sales campaign and the 1911 creation of the Carnegie Corporation of New York (the first major general purpose foundation) to other examples that don’t neatly fit the boundaries of “traditional” foundation giving.  Simply by painting a picture of mental models like these, writers help readers suddenly see through the facade.

In Do More than Give, we encourage donors to dismantle another mental model – to move from primarily conceiving their role as “check writer” and instead becoming “problem solvers.”  Too often, philanthropists define themselves primarily as “grantmaker”, and companies, nonprofits, government leaders and individual donors see giving money as their primary means of achieving change.  By encouraging readers to “do more than give,” what we’re talking about is going beyond grantmaking and directly engage in the change-making process.  As my coauthor Mark Kramer often says, “Philanthropy can be a spectator sport. But to catalyze change, you have to put some skin in the game.”  The challenge is to inspire donors to reconceive of their role – to break out of their prescribed “circle” in that traditional Venn Diagram.

I was recently inspired to see catalytic philanthropy through a new lens by another writer, Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest, coauthor of Money Well Spent.  Paul was a featured presenter on FSG’s recent Webinar, “Catalyzing Change—Stories from Bold Donors Who Drive Real Results”.  During the Webinar, Brest shared his view of what makes catalytic philanthropy unique from traditional grantmaking: "Catalytic philanthropy requires a lot risk. [Catalytic donors] will try a number of things and some just won’t work.  What justifies taking the risk is the potential for impact. And it’s all about impact."

In Do More Than Give, we also write about catalytic donors like Hewlett that have taken such risks and achieved real results.  But Brest admits that the two biggest advocacy efforts of Hewlett grantees over last couple of years have been “abysmal failures.”  One was attempt by a group of organizations to get congressional cap on CO2 emissions, and the other one was to achieve an agreement in Copenhagen across many countries.  “But what justifies taking those risks,” explained Brest, “is to the potential for impact.  You have to have risk appetite.”

Brest is right – without risk, there is limited potential reward.  Risk is what drives venture capital industry, and it’s what inspires catalytic donors to do counter-intuitive things, like staff up their foundations and put skin in the game of catalyzing change, rather than only shuffle money out the door.

So here’s to new ways of seeing familiar things—and to taking more risks in the New Year.

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