If you want to show up differently in philanthropy and work creatively with others to make truly lasting, systemic change on the issues that matter most I hope this post will speak to you.
It's no secret that the last few years have seen an increasingly public critique of philanthropy, from Rob Reich (Just Giving), to Edgar Villanueva (Decolonizing Wealth) and Anand Giridharadas (Winners Take All). All of these books are well worth reading closely, whatever seat you occupy in and around the world of philanthropy.
At the heart of these critiques is an indictment of the whole structure of philanthropy and the power dynamics that pervade it. As Edgar Villanueva puts it: "The field of philanthropy is a living anachronism. It is (we are) like a stodgy relative wearing clothes that will never come back in fashion. It is adamant that it knows best, holding tight the purse strings. It is stubborn. It fails to get with the times, frustrating the younger folks. It does not care."
If you're reading this, chances are you feel powerfully called to do the very best you can as an individual to give back better. You are seeking to allocate your resources in ways that truly maximize impact and seed lasting solutions to deeply entrenched systemic challenges, from the inequity in education, housing, health and criminal justice systems, to fostering opportunity and sustainable economic development, close to home or around the world. Whether or not you agree with each and every charge that's been leveled at the field of philanthropy, you know that philanthropy as a whole isn't rising to meet the moment. Much of what you see around you in the philanthropic world falls woefully short of what you aspire to in your own giving.
So what can you as an individual do to live out your own aspirations for impact and integrity in your giving? Through the coaching and advising work that I've done with funders, I've come to believe that one of the most important things you can do as a forward thinking funder is to develop yourself psychologically, and take the fear out of your philanthropy.
To explain what I mean, I want to share a way of thinking about your philanthropy that's grounded in a deeper examination not just of the impact you want to achieve out in the world, but also of your own psychology and motivations for giving.
What if we think about philanthropy along two dimensions: the degree of impact that it has on what matters most out in the world, and the degree of personal satisfaction that it brings in the mind of the donor. Ok, maybe I'm indulging in the classic consultant thing of creating a 2x2 matrix that you can fit the whole world into. But stick with me on this. You can lay out four possibilities when you categorize philanthropy along these two dimensions—as illustrated below.
When it comes to figuring out what makes you feel satisfied with your own giving, it's helpful to draw on human needs psychology. The model I use for this in my coaching practice draws a distinction between lower level human needs (security, status, social connection, novelty & entertainment), and our higher level drives for self-actualization (social contribution, personal growth and self-transcendence). These higher level drives are what bring us true fulfillment and joy in life--but they are also not essential to our survival. By contrast we all have to find ways to meet our lower level needs one way or another. The drive to meet these egocentric needs is so strong that we'll violate our own values if that's what it takes. Ironically, we actually have all kinds of agency about HOW we meet these needs, but all too often when our established routines are threatened instead of getting creative we get fearful and step on anything and anyone that's in our way.
So taking the fear out of your philanthropy is about stepping back and getting a higher level perspective--it's about coming to your philanthropy from a place of psychological strength rather than hunger.
This approach encourages you to ask how you are defining "satisfaction" for yourself as a donor. Which sort of psychological needs are you using your giving to meet? It turns out that the answer to this question has a lot to do with how much lasting impact you'll end up having out in the world.
Let's look at each of the four types in turn:
Through the lens of this framework it's not hard to see where all the critiques of philanthropy are coming from. Self-centered, senseless and spiritless giving are very much alive and well in the philanthropic world!
The good news is that if you're committed to doing your own giving differently, there are all kinds of tools, techniques and practices to help you elevate your perspective--to come at the work with an awareness of yourself and the larger systems of which you are a part. With this in mind, I've found it very helpful to think in terms of levels of personal development when it comes to my own journey as well as that of the philanthropists and social entrepreneurs we coach and advise.
The idea is that at each successive level we are able to see and understand more about ourselves and world around us. These stages of development aren't a one-way escalator--we are all moving back and forth among these levels as we live our lives. But breaking free of fear as a major energy source in your life is about building up a critical consciousness about your own psychology, and ultimately seeing the larger systems in which you are embedded. This elevated perspective is especially important if you're in the world of philanthropy because of how dynamics around privilege, race and power can operate without our open acknowledgement or even our conscious participation.
Ultimately, sense-making philanthropy is about cultivating both self awareness and systems awareness. This is the vantage point from which we can truly maximize our impact and our joy as people with a calling to use our gifts and our resources to make the world a better place, for real.
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I'd love to hear any thoughts and reflections you have about your own journey, whether you're giving money away, raising it, or just looking to kick some ideas around. Reach out to me anytime at [email protected]
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