Philanthropic Arrogance (and How to Avoid It)

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy Daily.

Last week I wrote (in Philanthropy Daily) about how, over the last two decades, researchers in biology, neuroscience, and psychology have shown consistently that subjects with power lose a great degree of empathy as their power increases.

To put it starkly: research has shown that power literally causes brain damage.

This means that the same qualities that made us want to be philanthropic in the first place start eroding as we are propelled into a position of communal power.

We become less and less connected with the realities of the people we are trying to serve, and we become less and less permeable to their feedback (in the rare cases when they dare to give real and honest feedback). Little by little, we start believing we are infallible and we react badly to criticism and challenges.

It’s not surprising, then, that we tend to replace empathetic, field-based philanthropy with an aseptic version of strategic funding, conducted from the safety of our board rooms rather than from the trenches, where we could be interacting with real people that benefit or suffer from our funding choices.

In order to succeed as philanthropists, we need to better understand and accept the views of those who are in positions of less relative power. 

Now, that’s not impossible, but it takes deliberate, and sometimes uncomfortable, action.

The first antidote to “Hubris Syndrome” is personal. Are there people in your life who keep you grounded, who help you see that you are being callous to others?

If there aren’t, there should be.

Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, filled that role for him and made the legendary statesman a more effective leader. She would often tell Winston that he was being contemptuous to his subordinates (which he usually was — but think how much worse it might have been without Clementine).

The mother who tells her CEO daughter to take a beginner’s class in something you know nothing about, “Just to make sure you always feel what it’s like to be at the bottom rung of a ladder”; the spouse who tells you, without sugar-coating it, that you are being ridiculous; etc.

Do you let yourself enter spaces of vulnerability, places in which you feel less powerful and therefore more connected to others? You should cherish those spaces, because they inoculate you against hubris syndrome.

Second: honest and timely feedback is critical.

And it won’t be forthcoming. Grantees won’t give it to us unless we make them feel perfectly safe — unless we create a working culture in which feedback is protected, welcomed, and encouraged, not only with words but with deeds.

The first time that a grantee loses funding for challenging us, we can be sure that nobody will be there to tell us that we are not infallible. Nothing is more dangerous than feeling infallible. You need to constantly tell yourself that if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. 

Third: connect deeply with the people you are serving.

Go to their environments; don’t just listen to what they tell you, but see how they live, what hurts, what decisions they take, and why. Like those Roman emperors who disguised themselves at night to mingle with the common folk, one has to learn how to create a link that bridges cultural and socioeconomic divides.

Fourth: never stop learning.

Recognize your own shortcomings and always have aggressive goals of personal and professional improvement. Don’t listen to the advisor that makes you feel the best, listen to those who challenge you and force you to learn something new.

Fifth: work with partners and equals within a system rather than in isolation.

I realize that many of us created our own foundations precisely so as not to be beholden to a system of controls and restraints, and that’s legitimate.

But considering the impact of our actions within broader communal systems can bring us pause and make us reflect deeply about our work. Working in relationships of true partnership — with other funders, communal organizations, etc. — is critical, because we create rapport with complementary equals rather than subordinates. Moreover, building a system in which our grantees are our partners is key to an honest relationship with them.

The power of funders in the modern economy is increasing, and we who wield it need to acknowledge its negative side effects. Not because we should extinguish that power, but because of its potential for good.

Philanthropic power has achieved great things for the world; think how much more can be achieved when we are able to see beyond the blind spots that come with it.

Andrés Spokoiny is president & CEO of Jewish Funders Network. Follow him on Twitter at @Spokoiny.

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