Learning History to Make History

This blog post from CEP President Phil Buchanan originally appeared on the CEP blog in July 2015. It is reposted here as part of our Rewind series.

A young donor behind a large, new foundation said something that really struck me — and in a good way. It happened last May in a session at CEP’s conference that I moderated on “new models in philanthropy” (some of which of course are not so new at all), and came in a response to an audience member’s question about the one thing panelists would like to see change in philanthropy.

“I’d … love to see more written about the history of philanthropy,” said Cari Tuna, co-founder of Good Ventures, who went on to explain that we need to know about what’s worked and what hasn’t, noting that her foundation is supporting some efforts in this regard. (Video of the session is available, and her comment comes in its concluding moments — at the 1:11:00 mark.)

Her words struck me in part because so many of Tuna’s counterparts in Silicon Valley seem to be uninterested in history, pledging to do philanthropy “differently” and talking with scorn — and in sweeping generalizations — about those who came before them. (For more on these generalizations, see my Chronicle of Philanthropy column.)

The problem is, too often, new donors think success in philanthropy will come as quickly as success in business, and that they can do it on their own. They don’t know what they don’t know, and proceed to make entirely avoidable errors — going on a long, humbling, and painful journey.  Often, it’s only many years later that we can all see that results have been disappointing.

So much of this could be avoided if only we paid a little more attention to learning from history.

“Everything old is new again,” lamented Chris Cardona of the Ford Foundation in this blog post. “It’s one thing to have perennial problems in philanthropy. It’s another to willfully or blithely ignore history.”

Indeed. And, to their credit, Tuna and her husband, Facebook and Asana co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, seem very focused on not making this mistake with their philanthropy.

Tuna has spent considerable time and energy doing her research, and she has also pledged that Good Ventures will be a model of transparency so others can learn from the foundation’s experiences. After all, major donors and foundations can’t be effective alone. So they need to learn from others — and from the past.

Mario Morino, founding chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, is admirably — and unusually — direct about his own failure to recognize this in his early days as a philanthropist.

“I came in a little too brash, a little too arrogant, a little too sure of myself, not realizing this really was a different world,” Morino is quoted as saying in a Chronicle of Philanthropy cover story headlined “Silicon Valley vs. Philanthropy.”

Between Tuna’s interest in the history of philanthropy, Morino’s willingness to be open about his own missteps, and promising efforts such as the HistPhil blog — which is bringing a refreshing new historically-grounded voice to contemporary debates about philanthropy — maybe there is cause for optimism.

Maybe there is a recognition that to make philanthropic history, you need first to learn a bit about it. twitter-web20

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