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To Get to Philanthropic Pluralism, We Need Empathic Philanthropy

Date: June 8, 2023

Christy Vines

President and CEO, Ideos Institute

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Over the past several months, a debate has waged in articles, virtual panels, and social media over the recent op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy titled, “We Disagree on Many Things, but We Speak With One Voice in Support of Philanthropic Pluralism. Creatively shortened as the “Philanthropic Pluralism Manifesto,” arguments for the article’s bold stand in support of philanthropy’s role in supporting pluralism have been matched by others denigrating it for its shortcomings, naïveté or worse, the damage such an approach might cause. 

While this piece is not meant to analyze the merits of either side of the argument, what might be helpful is an assessment of what is often missing from the philanthropic sector writ large: empathetic intelligence (more on what this is in a moment). 

It is clear that not only does the philanthropic sector play a role in the marketplace of ideas, it plays an even greater role in the adoption and spread of social norms and behaviors. With its considerable power through capital deployment, foundations and philanthropists have the power — through a not always transparent process — of picking “winners” which in turn play a strong role in how social norms, cultural ideas, and even legislative focus are determined. While not always ideal, the process has led to largely positive outcomes.

For example, had it not been for philanthropy’s overwhelming support of organizations large and small following the murder of George Floyd working to advance greater racial justice and oversight of local policing, there is a strong case that the effort would not have sustained itself long enough to catch the eyes and ears of the broader public. 

The same can be said for COVID-19 responses. It was because of philanthropy’s overwhelming investment in trusted, local organizations best positioned to bring awareness of the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine in their communities that vaccine distribution and adoption happened at the pace it did. 

However, in these and other cases, philanthropic capital can be deployed to advance ideas and practices that lead to less justice for some and more for others, and not always intentionally. It is here that philanthropy is often blamed for its blind spots, its failure to understand the true needs of the public, or the most effective ways to advance a social good. This is where empathy comes in.

Empathy is almost universally understood as an ability to put oneself in the shoes of others, or an ability to understand or share the emotions and feelings of another. By this definition, to feel empathy towards a person or population who lives an entirely different life, or whose experiences exist far outside of one’s own would require a significant amount of research and data — or considerable imagination. 

Few people have either the full, well-researched picture or the kind of creative imagination required to even begin to understand someone else’s story, especially someone whose life is significantly different. This is the peril of empathy: it is a necessary ingredient for what we’ll label “empathic philanthropy,” but perhaps a different understanding of empathy might be helpful if we are to put it into daily use.

That brings me to empathic intelligence — the more effective and reliable, big brother (or sister) of empathy.

According to Dr. Roslyn Arnold, dean and head of school in the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania, empathic intelligence is:

“A practical and powerful process of gaining new insights and empathic understanding that can lead to ideas unconsidered or deemed impossible in its absence. Unlike other intelligences, it relies not only on the accumulation of data or knowledge, but the unique ability to understand, and then act upon, the experiences and perspectives of others without negating one’s own in the process.”

She goes on to observe that empathic intelligence can inform “how people observe, feel, think, imagine, and test their own assumptions, while being mindful of that fact that to do so might highlight their own blindspots and biases.”

Perhaps most relevant to practitioners of philanthropy, empathic intelligence has the potential to empower individuals to “harness complex intellectual and interpersonal skills primarily for the benefit of understanding complex issues; imagining often unimaginable ideas; and most importantly meeting others’ needs. What emerges is the ability to decenter oneself without losing one’s own beliefs and values in the process.”

So how might this intersect with the arguments laid out in the “Philanthropic Pluralism Manifesto”?

An empathically intelligent philanthropic sector is not required to affirm or accept the underlying legitimacy of any foundation or philanthropist holding dangerous views. Nor does it mean that all foundations and philanthropists are committed to the betterment of society. Empathy, much less empathic intelligence, has nothing to do with affirming or accepting all perspectives. Instead, it offers a process for greater understanding, while decreasing the tension that often exists between differing opinions or perspectives about how to solve important issues.

In other words, an empathically intelligent approach deescalates the very conflict and divisive positioning that the Manifesto seeks to address, without affirming ideas that might be dangerous or antithetical to the advancement of pluralism writ large. It can also lead to healthier ways of addressing these differences, ones that do not require the “cancellation” of those who hold these stances altogether. We know that injustice and wrong exist in society. The philanthropic sector does not claim immunity from them.

What an empathically intelligent philanthropic sector might do differently is to understand the “why” — the stories, perspectives, and motivations — behind the positions and perspectives of those with whom they disagree in order to better influence them, respond to them, and in the process, enhance their own understanding of the problem. 

With this in mind, here are five ways that I believe the philanthropic sector can grow in both their empathic intelligence AND commitment to pluralism:

  1. Inculcate within the sector a commitment to pluralism — of ideas, beliefs, backgrounds, AND approaches. This means moving outside of normal, comfortable, and “go to” environments and spaces. 
  2. Commit to learning, not just about the problem being addressed, but the many, many, ways it might be solved, including those that might run counter to the norm. This means getting up close and personal with approaches, ideas, and programmatic stances that may well be in opposition to the ones held.
  3. Invite feedback and evaluation from a diversity of stakeholders, especially about the diversity of funded approaches in your portfolio. This might include asking existing grantees about organizations they know that are approaching the problem differently.
  4. Go beyond understanding how people and populations experience problems, but also their lived experience outside of them. There is much data and wisdom to be found by seeing the people you serve as whole people, not only as the focus of the problem or your efforts to help them.
  5. Decenter the philanthropic sector broadly, and perhaps, the ways in which foundations and philanthropists believe problems should be fixed. Growing in empathic intelligence means releasing the hubris that too often accompanies power and influence — even for just a moment. The decentering process in pursuit of new information and new data about the lived experience of those at the center of the problem and solution (meaning both affected populations and the organizations being funded) isn’t easy, especially when you are in a position of power. 

Should the philanthropic sector seek to be more empathically intelligent, a pluralistic philanthropic sector might just be possible. Without it, there is great risk that the status quo continues.

Christy Vines is president and CEO of the Ideos Institute. Find her on LinkedIn and find out more about the Ideos Institute here.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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