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How to Be an Effective Philanthropist in Eight Easy Steps

June 15, 2010

(Larry Blumenthal helps foundations, nonprofits, and other organizations use the Web and social media effectively through his consulting firm Open Road Advisors. He's also a frequent op-ed contributor to PND, which is where this gem originally was posted. Larry blogs and tweets regularly about social media and philanthropy.)

Abc_chalkboard "I think I could be a philanthropist. A kick ass philanthropist! I would have all this money and people would love me. Then they would come to me and beg! And if I felt like it, I would help them out and then they would owe me big time! The first thing I'm going to need is a driver."

-- George Costanza, Seinfeld

My first month at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I asked Frank Karel to interview a candidate for our Web team. Frank, who was winding down his years as vice president of communications, invented the field of foundation communications and was a walking, breathing legend. The candidate had just graduated from college and was looking for her first full-time position.

Even though the interview was scheduled for casual Friday, Frank made the effort to wear a suit. When I asked him why, he said he knew the candidate would dress formally and he didn't want her to feel uncomfortable. He dressed for her.

Humility. Empathy. Respect for others. Some early lessons for me in philanthropy done well. I was lucky enough to learn from a long list of amazing people during my nearly nine years at RWJF. Now that I am on the outside peering back through the glass, it is my turn to pass on some of those lessons. Consider this one man's primer on how to be an effective philanthropist, learned the hard way. (Full disclosure: I was in communications, overseeing Web and social media strategy, not officially on the program side. But, of course, that doesn't stop me from having opinions about the program side as well.)

Forget about the glory. Harry Truman said, "It is amazing how much you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." Let it go. The foundation staff member is rarely the hero of the story. Yes, we contribute much more than is recognized -- providing vision, facilitating conversations, offering assistance and knowledge. But it is the grantees who are on the front lines every day. They are the heroes. Find ways to help them do their work. Help them on their journey. Don't make their life unnecessarily difficult. Show them, and everyone you work with, your respect and admiration. They are helping you achieve your mission.

Simplify. After I accepted the job at RWJF, I took some abuse from friends and colleagues. "Oh, giving away someone else's money all day. That sounds real hard." I learned quickly that it is not as easy as it looks. Not if you want to do it in a way that makes a difference. On the other hand, it doesn't have to be as hard as we make it. So many advisory boards and committees. So many layers of decision-making. Hurdle after hurdle for potential grantees to jump over. Endless bureaucracy. Lost in all of that is the sheer joy of contributing to a good cause, seeing a human being or two benefit at the end of the day. Isn't that the reason we all were drawn to this in the first place? Maybe a few of those energy-sapping steps aren't all that necessary. We all know they often represent a chance to cover your backside or justify someone's job. Here's my advice: Simplify when you can. Skip a step now and then. Trust your gut. Making a difference on the issues is what counts. Helping people is what counts. The rest gets in the way, so keep it to a minimum.

Maintain a sense of urgency. The first time I met with Frank Karel after being hired, he offered some advice. It wasn't consciously planned, but I had spent most of my career at start-ups. New ventures. When you are fighting for survival, you learn to thrive under serious deadlines. "Don't ever lose that sense of urgency," Frank said across the table in his office. "Don't slip into 'foundation time.'" I was used to thinking in terms of weeks or months. Foundations often are looking out over years. In philanthropy, most deadlines are self-imposed. It is easy to say, "Let's spend more time thinking that through." Don't. Move ahead now. Keep pushing. You are trying to make a difference in the world. There is no more urgent work. Get to it.

Tell stories. And think like a storyteller. Stories help people understand and empathize. Working at a foundation, you are surrounded by great narratives. The grantmaking process is all about one powerful story after another. Think about it: every grantee is on a journey. He or she wants to alleviate someone's suffering and has many obstacles to overcome to get there. It is the essence of any great story. If you think about grantmaking as creating narratives, it helps clarify your thinking. Sharing those stories also will pull people toward your mission. It will humanize your work. It will make you feel part of something real. Put aside the bullet points at your next meeting or presentation and tell one good story.

Be up-front. We all know foundations that make it difficult to find their tax return (Form 990) online. Or bury the salaries of top officials -- the only reason anyone outside of the IRS is looking at a 990 to begin with -- in the middle of hundreds of other pages. Stop. If you are embarrassed by the salaries, then deal with it. Don't hide it. Same goes for surveys of your grantees that may not shine the best light on you. Or evaluations that uncover flaws. Or negative comments in letters or on your Web site or foundation blog. Or the big and small failures when grants don't turn out as they were intended. Come clean. Learn from it. Share those lessons with the world. Demand of yourself the same openness you expect from grantees and colleagues. Admitting you are human and being honest in your dealings will lead to stronger relationships and more effective programs. Covering up just leads to resentment and mistrust.

Take some risks, and share when you fail. Foundations talk all the time about how they need to take more risks. They do extensive research and surveys that uncover a need to take more risks. They put together panels at conferences to discuss risk taking. So much talk, so little risk taking. I struggled to understand this for a long time. What was going on? I think there is a simple answer. As happens at a lot of organizations, foundation staffers have little incentive to take chances. It is exhausting enough to battle the bureaucracy and run the gauntlet of decision makers and feel you are making a difference at the end of the day. There is no simple solution except for senior staff to find ways to encourage and reward risk taking. Celebrate it. Share big honking failures with the whole staff and say, "Look at what we learned. Isn't that great." Talk is cheap. Take some risks. Praise others with enthusiasm when they do.

Let the world in. The typical foundation funding process is a closed and formal affair with a predictable outcome. Social media has made it possible to throw open the doors and invite feedback inside for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Open your processes. Broaden your network. Get out and join the conversation. Comment on other people's blogs. Follow your topic on Twitter to hear the latest chatter. Offer a guest post to someone's blog that isn't about you pontificating on your expertise, but rather asking for the thoughts of others. Pose questions to the field and listen to the answers. Ask for help. It is amazingly freeing to admit that you don't have all the answers. Let go of the standard process every once in awhile and try a different path. Idea competitions, prizes, crowdsourcing. Give them a whirl. Beats sitting in meetings all day talking to the same people over and over again.

Lighten up. I was interviewing a candidate to join the Web team at RWJF several years back, and he asked me a question I didn't get from anyone else: "Do you have fun here?"

I had to think about that for a minute.

My answer? "We want to."

We wanted to; we just weren't very good at it. For God's sake stop taking this work so seriously. Yes, it is important work. Yes, we want to make a difference. That doesn't mean we have to walk around looking like toothless, wrinkled Aunt Hattie after she sniffed month-old cottage cheese. Check out this video made by the Case Foundation at Christmas last year. Just because we are doing good work doesn't mean we can't laugh and joke a little while we are doing it and take some time to celebrate. If this work doesn't make you smile sometimes, you have some soul searching to do.

At the end of the day, any foundation is just trying to make a difference, to have some impact on the issues. If you keep your eye on that specific prize, eliminate what gets in the way, and remain open to new approaches you can make some progress every day. And that's a pretty good goal.

What about you? Any lessons to share for others toiling under the hot sun in the philanthropic fields?

-- Larry Blumenthal

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