Effective Philanthropy: Steadfast in Our True Values in Troubling Times

Grant Oliphant

Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments and chair of the CEP Board of Directors, delivered the following address at the opening of the 2017 CEP Conference last week in Boston. This transcript originally appeared on The Heinz Endowments blog.

These are, to say the least, strange times, and to have the opportunity to gather with so many fellow travelers right now is a powerful and, for many of us I suspect, much needed gift. It feels good to be with all of you.

It also feels incredibly important. In Werner Herzog’s recent documentary, Lo and Behold, there is a wonderful segment when he’s interviewing a series of very impressive people like Elon Musk about moving into space and colonizing Mars, and then he turns to the astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, who tells him, basically, would you please stop it? When are we going to stop searching for ways to move to a vastly inferior planet and start trying to save the incomparably superior one we happen to be on?

When I look around this room, that’s what I see — people with the same intense focus on making the one planet we have work for everyone. We are emphatically not neutral on this. Either philanthropy is about building a more inclusive, sustainable and just society for each and every person in this country and in this world, or it is a mere random agglomeration of money and ego dressed up in the feel-good finery of charity. That’s not you — that’s not us.

Yet this gathering comes at a time when so many of the values and priorities we as a field embrace are under attack. The arc of history that many of us may have felt was fitfully, but with some hope, bending towards justice in our lifetimes feels suddenly as though it has been ripped from the hands of progress by forces that want to bend it backward into some ugly reimagining of a past that never was.

Just think about the issues CEP identified in its recent report on The Future of Foundation Philanthropy. It’s almost as though we drew up a checklist of where our country’s new leadership should target their wrath first: inequality, climate change, education, an appreciation for the role of government, and an embrace of changing demographics. Check, check, check, check, check.

If this feels like a “Great Unraveling” of all that we believe in, it should. It seethes with raw contempt for so much of what sustains civil society — art, science, math, journalism, free expression, respect for facts, respect for difference, and the basic human decency, civility, and moral empathy without which philanthropy itself would be rendered both impossible and meaningless. It is a philosophy captured best, in a very different context, in the popular new podcast S-Town, the impulse just to say “F it,” to chuck everything away — people, places, the whole planet — because who really cares and what really matters anyway?

And here we are, a bunch of well-meaning social do-gooders gathering to figure out how to improve our effectiveness. What does that mean now? If we weren’t at least a little depressed about our past effectiveness in getting to this point, which the CEP report suggests we already were before the rise of this dark nihilist ethos, or worried how relevant we can be on the road ahead, then we wouldn’t really be human.

For my part I have found myself in recent months turning more often to art and literature for inspiration and guidance. One of the works that has preoccupied me is the Inferno, Dante’s epic tale of a man’s journey into Hell — and not just because it feels like a metaphor, although it really, really does. What has held me are the lines that open the story. It begins: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”

That neatly captures how many of us have been feeling, strangers in an unexpectedly bizarre land, pushed out of our neat paths and comfortable assumptions. But those lines also describe the iconic launch into what Joseph Campbell centuries later would describe as the “Hero’s Journey,” the three-part structure that lies at the heart of much of literature and film. You know how this goes: a hero is knocked off the well-worn path into a realm of strange creatures and epic challenges, suffers pain and loss but ultimately wins an important victory, and returns home transformed in ways that benefit others.

At the outset of these journeys, the heroes always feel unequal to the task, always feel overwhelmed, always resist the call. How much easier would it be for them to decide they were never that important after all, or that what they did next matters only on the margins, only in a kind of “moderate” or trivial way? Adversity tempts us down the easier path, toward smaller hopes and lesser deeds.

But that’s not what happens in these stories. The heroes move forward anyway, and ultimately the only quality that sets them apart is their willingness to keep moving forward long enough for growth and discovery to happen. That, it turns out, is the true heroic act: to use the moment when we are at our most lost, our most unsure, to set out to do even more, to stretch beyond what we thought was possible.

And here’s the question for all of us and our field: how willing are we to do the same? The world does not need our angst right now, our doubt or misplaced modesty, any more than it needs our indifference or our silence or our timid neutrality. The work and organizations we support, the outcomes we seek, the people we serve can ill afford for us to act like bit players in a bad drama by simply wallowing in the nastiness unfolding around us. They need us to answer the call, to join them on the journey, to take what we do and the roles we are so privileged to play seriously enough to want to do them even better.

That’s why we’re at this conference, why believing in this thing called effectiveness is especially important right now, because that’s the journey we embrace. And for our field it is inevitably going to require us to overcome three uncomfortable challenges, which in various ways we’ll be exploring in this conference.

The first is to come into a new relationship with uncertainty. If the first great wave of improving foundation effectiveness was about holding ourselves accountable to strategies and metrics and learning from our experiences, I am increasingly convinced the second great wave will be about holding onto that rigor while letting go of the illusion of control that both it and our privileged position encourage.

Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, gave a wonderful dharma talk recently in which she recounted how her partner admonished her to keep faith in her work. “You know what you do,” her partner told her, “but not what you do does.”

I love that phrase — “you know what you do but not what you do does” — but, to be honest, that’s difficult for us here. We are a crowd that very much wants to know “what we do does” so we can do it better so it does more. In fact, that’s the whole effectiveness idea in a nutshell. Now if you are familiar with Solnit’s work, you know she is not advocating the sort of mental mushiness that CEP has fought so hard against. But she is promoting a kind of intelligent humility about what we can actually predict and direct.

I see a similar realization already at work in our field’s growing interest in general operating support that expresses trust rather than steering, and in methods of power sharing, design-thinking, and initiatives like Listen for Good that seek to engage the organizations and people we serve in a process of structured, shared learning. What is emerging is a practice of active listening and co-creation rooted in the inescapable fact that we do not have all the answers nor even often know all the right questions.

The second challenge is to connect our work more deeply with meaning and purpose. Sometimes our field is like that guy, and let’s face it it’s almost always a guy, who tries to communicate with a non-English speaker by raising his voice. We have a charming faith in the obvious virtue of our goals, and sometimes we seem to assume that if we just explained them in more detail or with more vigor everyone else would understand. And how’s that working out?

How willing are we to genuinely “bear witness,” to hear and tell and honor the stories of people whose lives connect with the issues we are working on? To understand what moves them, what tight bundles of dreams and fears make up their sense of purpose? If we really expect people to locate themselves in an increasingly complex world, to see a line from their story to the story of someone they have never met or to a scientific phenomenon that feels distant and unreal, then we had damn well better care about how we support a narrative of shared meaning.

And here again, I think we are learning. Our field’s growing interest in media, documentaries, journalism and communications more generally — along with the data to inform it — are a positive and necessary sign. But we are still way behind on this one, and we need to improve, quickly.

The third challenge is to start seeing ourselves more in the picture we are trying to affect. We are no more immune than anyone else to the devastating consequences of accelerating disparity, economic and racial injustice, environmental destruction, intolerance, or attacks on the freedoms that give us both the insight and the voice without which we are powerless. Why would we not throw ourselves more fully into combating them?

Our field’s delusion of separateness serves only to protect us from braving the exercise of our full power: the marshaling of our credibility, our individual and collective voices, the voices of those we support, our influence, our much-bragged about capacity to take risks others can only dream of. The folly of that has never been more apparent than it is now, which I think is why we see so many of us rising to speak out, to help others speak, to collaborate with each other, to build networks and movements, and to fund the sort of independent journalism, legal action, and policy work that these times demand.

We may all see these three challenges differently as we go into the next couple of days, and you may have your own to add. But it matters that we meet them. And I believe we will, because we have to. I actually think we CEOs got it wrong in the CEP survey. I believe there is one issue even more basic than the priorities we identified: the crisis of disconnection that is so much and so ironically a product of our hyper-connected world.

We are doing this work at a time when fundamental issues of human belonging are on the table, and not just because of politics but also because of how technology is changing our relationships with each other, with work, and even with ourselves. All around us questions are being asked that will define the future in the most sweeping of ways: Who is in “our” community, who is inside our circle of “we,” who do we need to care about, and who will we exclude with walls, bans, hatred, violence and, perhaps most terrifying of all, our worsening indifference?

It is no exaggeration to say we are fighting as never before for the future of this one, vastly troubled but still so precious planet we call home. There is no direct path from our work to that goal. There never was. Dante’s straight way was always a fantasy, a deception we tell ourselves in easier times. What this moment asks of us is the simple courage to keep moving forward anyway, to keep learning and growing, to keep striving for improvement.

In the 9th century a Zen master named Linji commented, “The real miracle is not to walk on water or fire. The real miracle is to walk on the earth.” That is our common and heroic task, not partisan but human, not political but moral: to help society walk on the earth, and keep walking on the earth long after we are gone.

Grant Oliphant is president of The Heinz Endowments and chair of the CEP Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @go_grant.

2017 Conference, CEP conference, leadership, leading effective foundations
Previous Post
#CEP2017 Recap: Day 3
Next Post
“If I made anyone here uncomfortable, you’re welcome.”

Related Blog Posts