Great Philanthropy Mirrors Great Education

All foundations, schools and universities seek to help people do what they otherwise might not be able to do. Great educators and educational settings create conditions for inspiration, growth and achievement. Great foundations can and should do the same for their grantees.

A prior post addresses the notion of why business is an ineffective analog for philanthropy. Meaningful parallels do not withstand scrutiny since philanthropy is fundamentally about helping people, whereas business is ultimately about profit. This does not mean we should avoid analogous fields and activities. There is fertile ground in education when searching for ways to think about more effective approaches to philanthropy. Although philanthropists are effectively once removed from those we seek to help while teachers serve their students directly, we both work to the same end.

Would you rather have your children be taught how to read, or, learn to love reading? Safe question. Of course, we all would choose a passion for reading as the acquisition of the skill is implied. Assuming no extenuating circumstances, whether or not they develop a passion will be the direct result of how they are taught. Many teachers are capable of teaching how to read; however, those who teach students how in a manner through which children come to love reading are rare. Thus, content acquisition and skill development without strong pedagogy limits the outcome. This is why research leaves no question that the quality of a teacher is the single greatest factor in driving student achievement. The interaction between teacher and student(s) is the most critical moment and matters the most in education at all levels and across academic disciplines.

Likewise, the interaction between program staff and stakeholder is the critical factor in producing quality proposals that lead to good and, at times, great grants. In their introduction to Working Well With Grantees, The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Ellie Buteau and Phil Buchanan state, “In fact, our research shows that, in some respects, the program officer matters more to the experience that grantees have with foundations than does the foundation itself.” The same dynamic often plays out in education. So what can we learn from great teachers?

Education has caught up to Benjamin Franklin who said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” K-12 teaching has evolved as we learn more about the most effective means to educate students of varying abilities, learning styles and backgrounds. Over time, we have seen the “sage on the stage” model give way to student-centered approaches, where the most effective teachers serve as exemplary facilitators involving their students in learning. High quality, effective teachers now engage in a learning partnership with their students. Whenever possible, masterful teachers seek to empower students by customizing content and methods to: meet the need, learning style and level of each student; encourage students to collaborate with each other; and, generally, create an environment where everyone achieves to their full potential. Even in elite colleges and universities there is a transformational conversation well underway about teaching and learning.

Can we say that the trends in the philanthropic sector mirror those in education? For some foundations, the answer is yes. For many, in light of the feedback we have seen from grantees over the past decade, the answer is no. Foundations are increasingly more direct in their demands of grantees. Even the highest capacity nonprofits are not immune to this. It is a trend towards what I have come to call a prescriptive approach. In many cases, this is likely inadvertent and often related to an overemphasis on the need for objectively measureable results. Yes, we still need outcomes, however, we should always be aware of how we do our work and how we measure results. We should consciously seek a balance between process and outcomes. We should strive to more effectively form philanthropic partnerships with stakeholders that are akin to the learning partnerships found now between highly effective teachers and their students.

Partnership does not mean we guarantee funding. It means we guarantee a fair and helpful process. As a key strategic goal, true partnership requires defined yet flexible frameworks through which a foundation’s staff engages with grantees to help them generate their best ideas towards developing their best proposal. Due to the power dynamic between grant seekers and foundations, it requires that the foundation take the lead and intentionally build trust. For those who are eventually declined, the foundation should try to make it a value-added experience by providing constructive feedback. This should also convey that a “no” does not mean “never” for those that fit within established guidelines.

The foundation should commit to work flexibly with recipients as they implement a grant award so that they feel comfortable in making mistakes, learning and taking corrective action. And, even if the foundation’s staff can see them coming, they must be disciplined enough to let grantees make small mistakes, so as to learn more important lessons and develop greater capacity for their work going forward. In all cases, those funded by grantmaking foundations will have to operate eventually without the foundation’s support and guidance. Therefore, whenever possible, built in dependency should be avoided at the earliest stages of funding. While this sounds simple in theory, it is far more difficult to avoid in practice.

Is there anything in the above that you would not find in a great teacher? When the CEP’s Working Well With Grantees report was issued, my first thought was how strikingly similar the skill sets are for great program officers and great teachers. Both skill sets transcend their respective academic disciplines and philanthropic program areas. Internally and externally, both a teacher and a program officer must be able to communicate with and manage the expectations of people from a variety of backgrounds and abilities. They must walk in many worlds. Often, these range from the boardroom to the street. Each has a power dynamic that must be handled gracefully. Each must be inclusive, patient, caring, disciplined, hopeful, knowledgeable, pragmatic and nimble. Collectively, these traits can be found in excellent schools, colleges and universities as well.

The great ones empower their students/grantees to go above and beyond – to do what they might not otherwise be able to do. As William Arthur Ward put it, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” Replace “teacher” with “foundation” or “program officer” and the resulting quotation captures the essence of great philanthropy.

William Keator is vice president for programs at The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. He began his career in philanthropy as the first program officer for the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation.

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