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Philanthropy as a Platform for Civic Leadership

May 04, 2016

Civic-Engagement-Green-ShootsPhilanthropy often is the tie that binds communities together. From city to city, state to state, country to country, the vast majority of people benefit from andor participate in philanthropy. The true power of philanthropy, however, lies beyond the art and practice of grantmaking and is tied up with its ability — and responsibility — to equip and empower communities to move forward on their own.

As an institution, philanthropy is uniquely positioned to meet the ever-changing needs of communities, empowering them to drive a variety of projects, programs, organizations, and campaigns that serve hundreds and, at times, thousands. The work we do is, in many ways, the secret sauce — although the recipe for change doesn't always come in the form of a check. Indeed, while our financial capital is important, equally as important is the reputational, social, and intellectual capital we bring to the table. Just as communities are powered by the residents that live and work in them, foundations are powered by the people within them. And, in many cases, those people are very much a part of the fabric of the communities they are working to improve.

When I'm not meeting with grant partners, much of my time is spent with business and government leaders trying to identify collaborative approaches we can take to tackle the complex issues facing our communities. In early April, for instance, I met with Dave Bing (the former mayor of Detroit, retired Hall of Fame basketball player, and respected businessman) to brainstorm strategies focused on addressing the summer employment crisis that affects many teenagers and young adults in the region.

As philanthropic professionals, our role and way of working is distinct. Philanthropy provides balance and support. Neither business nor government can improve communities and systems alone. If there is no profit involved, the private sector tends to prefer the status quo. If consensus isn't built, government often operates with its hands tied. Business and government function best when the community is involved through civic leadership and engagement. We — the people powering foundations — can facilitate and promote these conversations and connections.

Beyond our elaborate mission statements and theories of change, at the core of our work are the things we do to improve the people and places around us. That's our secret sauce.

When done well, making grants can create impact, but grantmakers also have the ability to influence outcomes in other ways. When we do more than grantmaking, we occupy a space of significance. And when, and only when, we are significant, can our communities be successful.

At the Skillman Foundation, we've experienced this shift in how we approach our role firsthand. Just recently, with the leadership of our board of directors and President/CEO Tonya Allen, the foundation played a critical role in influencing change. Our participation and leadership in the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and My Brother's Keeper Detroit has not only created a foundation for positive change, it has also positioned us to do things with the community — not to or for it. In both these efforts, funding was not the driving force, and success wasn't measured by the size of a grant or the announcement of a new program. It involved leveraging various forms of capital to influence policy and practice at both the local and state levels. Being influential, we have learned, comes down to the ability to effect and affect. It's treating grantees as partners, not as clients.

When I first entered this field, I challenged myself to develop a personal mission statement that would guide my work and the way I engaged with communities. My mission is to be a voice for the voiceless, chart a path for the lost, shine a light on the invisible, and give hope to the forgotten. In my opinion, that is what philanthropy is all about.

Headshot_David_McGheeDavid McGhee is a program officer at the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, where he leads the foundation's youth development strategy portfolio. A version of this post originally appeared on Foundation Center's GrantCraft blog.

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