Drawing Inspiration from What Has Worked

At this time of year, it’s common to hear the hope expressed that, as the Counting Crows song goes, “maybe this year will be better than the last.”

That hope for a better year is usually accompanied by a lament about how terribly, horribly bad the year that just ended was. And, certainly, in the U.S. and globally, there was a lot to point to in 2015 that was deeply upsetting — from persistent and deep-seated racism to increasing income inequality to tragic and frightening incidents of terrorism, to name just a few.

No one should be satisfied with the status quo.

But, as Charles Kenny pointed out in The Atlantic last month, the facts suggest that “2015 was the best year in history for the average human being to be alive.” From decreasing rates of child mortality to the expansion of civil and political rights, Kenny cites data that paints a picture of meaningful progress.

To note this is not to suggest that we should be complacent or declare victory and pack up and go home. But I think it’s an important thing to be cognizant of to counter the perhaps natural human tendency to focus on failings and to take for granted the good (and the improving).

That tendency certainly exists in discussions of philanthropy. We read countless articles proclaiming, essentially, that philanthropy has failed, featuring lists of persistent problems cited as “evidence” for the sector’s shortcomings. This is typically followed by a call for a shiny “new” (typically not actually new) approach that all are to adopt, immediately, regardless of context — and possibly with the (expensive) consulting services of the authors.

Yes, of course we need innovative and creative new approaches! But in all this hype about new models — and the tendency to dismiss all that has come before — we risk failing to learn from what has worked. 

If you have read my blog posts before and this feels familiar, that’s because it is. I’m sorry. It’s not that I like repeating myself, but this pattern has been playing out, in an endless loop, for more than a decade. (Peruse back through issues of the Stanford Social Innovation Review and see for yourself.)

Look, I’m no apologist for the current state of philanthropy — or, for that matter, for the current state of business or government. We need more effective foundations, just as we need more effective, responsible businesses and more effective government.

But over the years I have kept asking the same questions: if philanthropy is to be blamed for what hasn’t improved, shouldn’t it also get some credit for what has? And, if it should get some credit, how can we learn from those successes?

So, as we start 2016, I suggest that rather than lamenting all that is wrong in our world and in the practice of institutional philanthropy, we instead look back at perhaps the most stunning philanthropic success in recent years — progress in civil rights for gays and lesbians.

This recently released case study and accompanying 18-minute video from Proteus Fund tell the story of the Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC), “a consortium of foundations that pooled … their resources and strategically aligned their grantmaking” over 11 years and to the tune of $153 million. We all know the outcome and how the story ends — with last June’s landmark Supreme Court decision. But the case study and video detail the evolution of the strategy that helped lead to that victory — and the setbacks and iterations along the way.

I know the achievement of marriage equality doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of battles left to be fought for gays and lesbians, or for transgendered people. I’m not naïve. But it is a stunning achievement. And, like the data that Kenny cites in his Atlantic article, it suggests that we should not lose sight of the fact that progress really does happen.

The video is a moving and compelling reminder of the path this country has travelled on the issue of marriage equality — a path that looked very, very rocky at times. Toward the end of the video, the question is raised: if this kind of change can happen when funders work collaboratively and strategically with each other and with their grantees, along with many other actors, what else might be possible?

I don’t know what the future holds. No one does — contrary to what those who issue predictions this time of year would have you believe. But perhaps the Paris accord signals that, after years of insufficient action, we will start to see more real progress in stemming climate change. And perhaps the emerging bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform portends a future in which the focus is on creating real opportunity — and on rehabilitation rather than incarceration for, say, nonviolent drug offenders. And perhaps we can emerge from tragedies like the shooting of Tamir Rice by an unqualified police officer who never should have been hired, and build a future in which African-Americans don’t continue to grow up with the fear that, as Bruce Springsteen put it 15 years ago, “you can get killed just for living in your American skin.”

Sound implausible?

So too would have been some of the other progress Kenny cites just a few decades ago. For example, “the UN reported this year that global child mortality from all causes has more than halved since 1990. That means 6.7 million fewer kids under the age of five are dying each year compared to 1990.”

Obviously, there are a lot of explanations for that, and philanthropy is just one part of the story. But, again, if we blame philanthropy for the progress that isn’t made, as so many do, let’s give it some credit for the progress that does occur.

And more importantly, let’s learn — and take inspiration — from that progress as we seek to change today and tomorrow. It is the progress we have made that should give us hope that, indeed, this year can be better than the last. 

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @philCEP.

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