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What the Music of Taylor Swift Can Teach Us About Great Philanthropy

Date: May 9, 2024

Joseph Lee

Manager, Assessment and Advisory Services

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Great music is more than the sum of its parts. A certain combination of notes, chords, and lyrics may create an exquisite gem of a song — or a barnburner of a jam — but what’s required to elevate music to the level of greatness is something else: an artist’s specific point of view, a distinctive and even idiosyncratic bent to their creativity that thrusts that harmony of notes, chords, and lyrics into an altogether different realm.

This same notion is also true of philanthropy. The greatest funders are more than a checklist of characteristics or strategies, formulaically pursuing the “right” approaches or best practices can only get you so far. What distinguishes funders who make the most impact is a strain of emotional intelligence and a durable perspective — often expressed lyrically through a specific vision or set of values. When a funder has done this well, you can usually see it in their grantmaking portfolio — not just where they give but how they give, and through the relationships they have built along the way, each of these elements part of their own distinct song.

Which brings me — and bear with me here — to the phenomenon that is Taylor Swift. We all know about her accolades and achievements, not to mention the seismic effect she’s had on our culture, but I want to home in on one dimension of her greatness: her unique talent for mining the vicissitudes of her personal life to convey something truthful and universal about the human experience.

Philanthropy, for many, is about this same commitment; it’s an expression of values and beliefs about how the world can be improved, how it can be more just, and even more joyful. With this in mind, and just for fun, I’ve mined the Swift catalog (Taylor’s version, of course) and put together a list of ways funders can express themselves as fully as the inimical artist in question.

1. “Eyes Open” … or focus on understanding grantees and their contexts.

It may be impossible to understand a grantee organization fully, but that doesn’t make the effort any less worthwhile. Performing the indispensable and fascinating work of learning about grantees — their organizations, their fields, the needs of their beneficiaries, the social and socioeconomic factors that affect their work — can be the quickest way to bridge the gap between a funder and a grantee. In return, this effort can help grantees understand your own goals as a funder, including your broader efforts and where their work fits within these aims.

 2. Wildest Dreams” … or consider providing multi-year, unrestricted funding.

We all know how powerful multi-year, unrestricted funding can be in the eyes of grantees, who frequently point to this approach as being the most important driver for their ability to make an impact. As we’ve seen through some of CEP’s own research, being able to unlock grantees’ potential by trusting them over time and offering them the latitude to make the best decisions for themselves can be transformative — a literal dream come true.

3. “I Bet You Think About Me” … or don’t forget your declined applicants.

As much as a funder may be (rightfully) fixated on grantees, let’s not forget about those organizations who you’ve decided not to partner with: through their unique lens, what can declined applicants tell you about your impact as a funder? Can they reveal how you might improve your interactions and communications during the application process? Or their experience of your declination process? Are you setting them up for future success? And is there anything about these organizations that is fundamentally different compared to your grantees? Soliciting feedback from your declined applicants can uncover something meaningful about your processes, approaches, and, importantly, the blind spots you may not be thinking of already.

4. “Last Great American Dynasty” … or be open to new approaches.
Deploying your accrued experience and expertise as a funder is vital to the strength of your grantmaking relationships, but at times it might be preventing you from innovating, being nimble, and introducing more equitable practices. The history of philanthropy and the unique position funders occupy in the nonprofit sector can mean becoming entrenched in certain practices that are then resistant to being tested and transformed. Openness to feedback and assessment can be a compelling way to kick the tires, forcing funders to keep an eye towards the future instead of rooting themselves in the past.

5. “Shake It Off” … or simplify and streamline paperwork.

The burden and challenge of nonessential parts of the grants process — unduly drawn-out proposals and application forms, redundant and lengthy reporting requirements — is worth revisiting. Deciding whether these components are critical for mutual learning or whether they represent an unnecessary hoop for funders and grantees alike to jump through can make a major difference, particularly in shaking off what may have been useful in the past but is no longer important. As a funder, being able to free up time for your staff so they can focus on what matters most, like building deep and trusting relationships, can be a purposeful way to strengthen your work.

6. “Love Story” … or be transparent and responsive.

Things like transparency and responsiveness help to buttress up all relationships, including those between grantees and funders. And it’s a two-way street: in the same way that for funders grantees need to be transparent about their challenges and responsive to your inquiries, so too do funders need to demonstrate these same qualities in return. The story of grantees and their foundation partners is about the shared work of creating impact, but it can concurrently be about those relational features — respect, candor, and compassion — that set the stage for lasting change.

7. “Look What You Made Me Do” … or solicit and act on feedback.

It’s deceptively simple, but by plainly asking how you’re doing as a funder and then acting on this feedback, you’re making it clear that accountability and performance matter to your organization. Finding data to assess your impact can be tricky, but it’s typically ideal to go straight to the source: collecting input from grantees and other stakeholders about how you can improve, and then closing the feedback loop by sharing what you did as a result can amplify the impact of your partnership in profound ways.

8. “Sparks Fly” … or offer support beyond the check.

What separates the grantee partnerships that are good from the ones that are … electric? One exceptional way that funding relationships can spark different ways of thinking and even more galvanizing change is through assistance beyond the grant. Showing up as a thought partner, connector, and supporter, whether it’s through fundraising help, additional capacity-building, or access to a broader network, can more fully realize the potential of a grant partnership and the impact you’re seeking to make.

As we’ve seen, Swift’s music, while unsparingly inward in its focus, is also about outward change: the desire to seek it in others and in the world around us — which, for funders, is perhaps the ultimate goal.

What’s more, making the impact that funders want entails a kind of personal bravery that can often times feel vulnerable, even painful, since it requires a willingness to look inward unflinchingly and honestly — both as an organization seeking change and as an individual agent of this change. But what, then, is the point of philanthropy at all if not to run towards these transformations? Or, to paraphrase a refrain from Taylor herself: would we give all we have … just for us to stay like that?

Joseph Lee is a manager, Assessment and Advisory Services, at CEP. Find him on LinkedIn.

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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