Phil Buchannan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, in his 2016 Essay, “Big Issues, Many Questions”, notes that the fundamentals of good philanthropy are straightforward and timeless: define your goals, pursue them with focused strategies, execute with discipline and measure results. He goes on to opine, however, that the issues facing foundations change and present new challenges.
One of the new challenges that Buchannan identifies arises from the increasing financial disparity between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of society. Anger over this issue seems widespread and it will undoubtedly affect public perception of grant makers. More people will be inclined to see philanthropic foundations as private playgrounds for the privileged rather than serious enterprises investing in social change.
Given that JSF does not fund advocacy or public policy research, our response to societal anger and skepticism must be simply to do our best and let our work speak for itself. Our mission is one of social justice. We help disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment. Our grants assist Indigenous Peoples, people with disabilities and the underserved. If we stay the course and communicate along the way, especially with our grantees, we can hope to be judged fairly and thereby play our small part in a larger debate about the role and efficacy of private foundations.
Communication seems particularly important because research shows that philanthropic grantees as a class feel that their funders often don’t know or care about their needs. We need to demonstrate, through our work, that we do know and we do care. That means, as we so often say, listening to our grantees. It is not for us to tell them, it is for them to tell us. What are the issues that they face? What do they need? The Foundation’s
upcoming Grantee Perception Report should help us to know whether we are sufficiently understanding our grantees and, if not, what further we need to do.
We must also listen to and connect with our “end users”, the people served by our non-profit schools, universities and institutions. Generally, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our work and we ought to do more of it. At site visits (both staff and board) we can request more audiences and open exchanges with students. And we will continue to take advantage of every opportunity to attend events and speak to students. Meeting students and listening and talking to them makes a personal connection, which leads to empathy and understanding.
Investing in social change is a long term proposition and requires patience, focus and staying power. It often involves risk and, because results are not readily apparent, doubts creep in and it is easy to lose faith. It is important that we, and the society we serve, have confidence in our work and that we “Keep Going.”