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You Have The Power to Change Philanthropy

Date: March 10, 2021

Nell Edgington

President, Social Velocity

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“An old friend of Robert Frost’s was driving him home on a moonlit August night, with huge stars in the sky. The friend mused, ‘On a night like this, I keep thinking that life is so short, and there is so little time.’ Frost put a hand on his arm and said, ‘It’s the other way around, you know. There is so much time. More than anyone could ever need.’”

I love this recounting by writer Jay Parini because it so beautifully captures the subtle but incredibly powerful shift from a scarcity worldview to an abundance worldview. As Robert Frost so eloquently put it, whether we see a lack of something, or more than enough of it, is simply a choice.

The same is true in the world of philanthropy. As a consultant, I spend a lot of time helping social change leaders identify and then overcome the scarcity thinking that holds back their ability to create social change. What do I mean by “scarcity thinking”? It’s a fundamental belief that there isn’t enough — enough money, enough leaders, enough organizations, enough power, enough influence — to achieve your social change goals.

Scarcity thinking pervades nonprofits, but also (shockingly) philanthropy. It may seem like a contradiction — someone who has large sums of money at their disposal can’t possibly be stuck in a scarcity mindset, can they? But it happens all the time.

In my view, scarcity thinking is the biggest impediment to the healthier, more equitable world we all want to see. But that world is actually just within our grasp, if we are brave enough (as poet Amanda Gorman reminded us recently) to think and be radically different.

No matter how relieved you may have been on January 20 when a new presidential administration took office, the brutal fact is that solving the mounting challenges our country faces will take much more than new political leaders. In fact, it will require every single one of us to recognize our own power and stand up to use that power to create something different.

Because the problem is not that effective philanthropists like you don’t know how philanthropy must change. The path is quite clear (and has been laid out quite frequently here on the CEP blog and many other sites, journals, and webinars). Philanthropy needs much more unrestricted funding, much higher payout levels, greater investment in BIPOC leaders, much more mission-related investing — I need not list every necessary change.

There are some philanthropic leaders who are already leading the charge (see examples here and here). But the majority of philanthropic dollars still move largely as they always have because scarcity thinking holds most funders — program officers, CEOs, and board members — back from leading true change.

Here’s how scarcity thinking plays out in these cases. Funders believe:

  • I don’t have enough money to fund programs AND infrastructure.
  • I don’t have enough influence to convince my board to implement mission investing.
  • I don’t have enough faith in the future to pay out more than 5 percent per year.
  • I don’t have enough confidence to invest in new, unknown leaders.
  • I don’t have enough power to call B.S. when I see it.

But here’s the thing. If you want to help lead the great sea change that will be required of philanthropy as we emerge from this pandemic, you have to first believe that you can.

In fact, that very thing — the rising up of previously powerless individuals within the many organizations that make up our philanthropic sector — is what will create the sea change. Change always starts with the individual, so if you feel a burning desire for your organization to fund differently, stop waiting for permission to take action.

You may believe that you, as an individual, have a scarcity of power to create change — but it’s actually the other way around, you know. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the most unlikely people can become true leaders, while those with big leadership titles can fail miserably. No matter your role in philanthropy, you can lead others (including those with the big titles) to change.

Here’s how to move beyond scarcity thinking to lead philanthropic change:

Move From Complaining to Action

I hate to say it, but I’m a bit tired of the self-flagellation of progressive funders. Don’t get me wrong, I understand you have to identify a problem before you can address it. And it is heartening to see more and more funders recognize what needs to change. But make sure that your complaining moves fairly quickly to action. Complaining is often just a release valve that allows us to move back into inaction, which then becomes frustration, and then more complaining. So when you complain about your antiquated boss, board, or peers, recognize that complaining alone can only take you so far.

Articulate the Change You Want

Usually the reason we complain is because we believe we don’t have the power to actually create change to a frustrating situation. So translate your complaints into solutions. To change how your organization funnels money to social change, you can’t just have a vague idea of what that looks like. Be crystal clear. What do you want your payout to grow to? How should your organization’s board makeup be different? When/how will you jump into mission investing? Spell it out — the what, the where, and the how. Use data and case studies to back up your vision, and be BOLD about what you want to change. After all, you are no longer limited by the “not enough” psychosis.

Gather Allies

If your board or senior management team are stuck in their ways — which they likely are because, remember, you’re turning a massive ship — find allies and momentum for change elsewhere. Ask your grantees to help make the case for the change you seek (many are already speaking up more boldly). Identify other funders — both inside and outside your walls — who also see the need for change, or could be convinced to. Then start sharing, evangelizing, and putting in motion your vision for bold change.

The pandemic has stripped many things from us. Critically, one of those things is the ability to hide behind the status quo. We no longer have the luxury of kicking ineffective philanthropy down the road. If you are hungry for change — and I hope you are because we need you to be — stop viewing yourself as simply a funder of social change and instead as a leader of social change. Because in 2021, we all must be leaders.

Nell Edgington is president of Social Velocity — where she helps create more strategic, financially savvy, and confident nonprofit and philanthropic leaders and organizations — and author of the just released book, Reinventing Social Change: Embrace Abundance to Create a Healthier and More Equitable World. Follow her on Twitter at @nedgington.

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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