« Don't touch that dial... | Main | A 'Flip' Chat With...Terry Lawler, Executive Director, New York Women in Film & Television »

Growing Wiser

August 11, 2010

(Tony Pipa is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he argued that it's time for stakeholders to revisit the question of a joint appeal for U.S.-based disaster relief efforts.)

Timepiece I fully intended to write a review of Mark Constantine's Wit and Wisdom: Unleashing the Philanthropic Imagination * (available for download here) when it was published by Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy over a year ago but never found the time amid the multiple projects I was juggling. The book's lessons, however, have proven so prescient in the intervening year that I want now to give it the attention it deserves.

Constantine's book contains a series of interviews with leading philanthropic practitioners who have spent their careers working to address social, racial, and economic justice in the American South. The emotional scars and real successes articulated in the reflections of these philanthropic veterans stand as a small but needed response to a yawning gap -- the lack of attention paid within the philanthropic community to the lessons of its past. The book is important for that reason alone.

It also has important things to say about many other issues at play within the field today. I was especially struck by the attention it pays to the subject of privilege in philanthropic practice.

Money, after all, bestows power. And as Gayle Williams of the Mary Babcock Reynolds Foundation notes, it is important for philanthropic leaders to recognize that this dynamic defines most of their relationships, and that the power they wield -- however well-intended its uses -- can do harm to the very organizations and people they are supporting.

In another interview, Jack Murrah of the Lyndhurst Foundation expresses frustration at many funders' conception of "empowerment":

My power and the foundation's power are not really transferable to others, and it seems arrogant to imagine that it is. Moreover, other people and organizations have forms of power that we don't have. For me the question is not how the foundation can empower someone else, but how we can bring various kinds of power together around a larger cause to produce results....

It's this vision of collective action that -- at least in these philanthropists' experiences -- provides the best prospects for effecting long-term change on big issues such as poverty, democratic representation, and racism. Time and again, in different ways, they talk about listening to, trusting in, and supporting an agenda for progress that is defined by communities themselves. As Williams puts it, it's a vision frequently at odds with the prevailing focus on "individual vision":

Philanthropists talk about their vision for change, without considering how to include the hopes, talents, and perspectives of diverse people in realizing a collective end that serves all people....

Such an approach requires humility, attention to a different kind of detail, and a leadership style that, as former COF president and ambassador Jim Joseph says, "is a way of being, not a set of competencies and skills." As Joseph, talking about Nelson Mandela, notes, "the question is not 'What to do?' but 'How to be?'"

I was reminded of these themes often when helping a national organization evaluate their program in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. It was clear to me that their investments in collective action and in representative local organizations did not always influence public resources and decisions to the extent they would have liked. Yet it was also clear that, in future years, their investments in these local leaders and organizations were likely to yield gains that they could not have forseen at the time.

And that's the wild card -- time. In fact, it is consistency of financial support, rather than quantity, that comes up again and again in these stories and is given the lion's share of the credit for stimulating the sort of durable, transformational social change that these leaders aspire to facilitate. Alas, it's a lesson all too easily forgotten in the debates about scaling up, metrics, and impact that preoccupy much of the field today.

Indeed, it makes me think we should be thinking about "scale" in terms of years, not amount of dollars or breadth of geography. As the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation's Sybil Hampton notes:

There is very little we have done...that I think will reap their full results in my lifetime; we are sowing seeds and preparing the ground for things in perpetuity....

Wit and Wisdom should be read by anyone who believes in the importance of patience, humility, and the power of hope to effect community change. Indeed, Constantine's book offers a recipe for change that does not lend itself to easy metrics but contains many of the key ingredients required to make it happen. Read it, then keep it on your nightstand and refer to it often. The communities you are working to support will be the better for it.

(*Disclaimer: Mark Constantine is a friend, and not only do I know those profiled in the book, I've had the pleasure of working closely with many of them and benefiting from their wisdom. Those profiled and/or contributing to the book include Ambassador James Joseph, Linetta Gilbert, Tom Wacaster, Gayle Williams, Sybil Jordan Hampton, Jack Murrah, Sherry Magill, Karl Stauber, Lynn Huntley, and Emmett Carson.)

--Tony Pipa

« Previous post    Next post »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

Subscribe to PhilanTopic


Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Filter posts