Are We Losing Our Humanity, While Saving the World?

A program officer was doing a site visit with a small nonprofit that worked with at-risk teens. The organization didn’t have a lot of resources, but they developed good relationships with the kids and were making a difference. At the end of the visit the executive director introduced the program officer to a young woman who was new to the program.

She told the program officer that she got involved after her grades started to drop at school, and that she faced significant family challenges. She explained that her baby, who was being raised by her grandparents in another state, had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She was worried that she wouldn’t make it to see her daughter before she passed away because she didn’t have money for a plane ticket.

For the rest of the day, the girl’s story weighed heavily on the program officer. He thought about his own six-month-old daughter and imagined how it would feel if she was sick and he was unable to see her. He decided to approach his foundation’s president to fast track the proposal, and they quickly approved a discretionary grant to support the nonprofit and help the teenager travel to visit her baby.

A few weeks later the nonprofit’s executive director came to visit the program officer. With tears in her eyes, the executive director said she had terrible news. They had given the teenager a plane ticket to visit her daughter and then found out that she had scammed the nonprofit. She didn’t have a baby.

The program officer asked incredulously, “So, there was never a dying baby?”

“I’m afraid not,” replied the executive director.

Breaking into joyous laughter, the program officer said, “That’s the best news I’ve had all month!”

How many of our foundations would respond in that way if we discovered the money was gone but there wasn’t another dying baby in the world? Fiduciary responsibility, due diligence and good grantmaking are all critical in the world of philanthropy, but it takes special care to ensure we don’t lose our humanity as we strive for effectiveness.

The Minnesota Council on Foundations and other regional associations across the country provide countless trainings on effective grantmaking practice and emerging issues in the field. We host experts from across the country to teach foundation staff the newest IRS standards, how to conduct a successful site visit and the importance of equitable philanthropic practices.

But how often do we gather grantmakers to talk about taking care of our own emotional health as we immerse ourselves in pressing community concerns like homelessness, Ebola or teen homicide? How often do we remind ourselves that our decisions have real effects on real people in real communities and that sometimes neither the problem nor the solution can be confined neatly to a logic model or a year-end report?

This lesson hit home for me a few years ago when an apartment building in my city burned down a few days before Christmas. Many of the tenants didn’t have renters’ insurance, so they were left homeless and had lost everything they owned. The news media covered the story extensively and amazingly, an anonymous donor came forward to help. A generous gift of $1 million was split between the families. They used the funds to re-purchase holiday presents that had burned and pay for damage deposits on new apartments.

As someone who has worked as a program officer, my first thought was, what a wasteful gift. The donor could have used that $1 million to lobby for sprinkler laws in existing apartment buildings or to purchase insurance for thousands of low-income renters. An evenly-split gift – with no consideration given to the tenants’ income levels or whether they had insurance – didn’t seem fair. What about the tax implications? Would the unexpected windfall cause any of the renters to lose public benefits?

As I talked through my irritation with my husband, who is blessed with distance from organized philanthropy, he said, “Can’t someone do something nice without you analyzing if it has an appropriate return on investment?” As spouses often are, he was right.

In its most literal form, philanthropy means love of mankind. But I sometimes worry that in our search for maximum change, greater impact and strategic solutions intended to save humanity, we forget to love the humans.

Trista Harris is president of Minnesota Council of Foundations, a vibrant community of grantmakers who award almost $1 billion annually.

developing strategy, effective philanthropy, RAG, regional association of grantmakers, role of philanthropy
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