Report Watch: Rejecting False Dichotomies

One of my great frustrations about the discussions and debates in philanthropy over the nine years I have been in this job is the tendency of those writing about philanthropy to posit false dichotomies.  So of all the excellent passages in the Monitor Institute report I blogged about on Friday, entitled What’s Next for Philanthropy, this one may have been my favorite.

“We hope that the years ahead turn out to be a time when the best philanthropic leaders reject the ‘either/or’ thinking that has characterized so much of the past 10 years, too often devolving into silly debates and artificial polarities.

Perhaps this is already occurring. The distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ philanthropy is fading, we’re glad to say, as it’s slowly been dawning on ‘old’ philanthropists what is new, while gradually occurring to the ‘new’ philanthropists what is not new. Convictions that were once trumpeted confidently are now more lightly held. That’s good, and speaks well of a growing sophistication and maturity that can shape the years ahead.

As we all ask ourselves what will be needed, we find ourselves agreeing with our colleague Eamonn Kelly, who argues that the wisest leaders have to learn to reckon with what he calls ‘creative tensions.’

In philanthropy, this means, among other things:

  • Feeling the urgency for short-term results and having stamina for the long-term
  • Holding onto autonomy and looking for every opportunity to coordinate and align with others
  • Insisting on rigor and evidence and taking risks despite uncertainty
  • Adopting strategies that maintain some top-down direction and letting go enough to unleash bottom-up energy
  • Looking for solutions that combine great analysis and unbridled creativity
  • Understanding that execution is important because we know what works and that innovation is important because what we already know isn’t yet enough
  • Rejecting false dichotomies is the philosophy that underlies the next practices we outline here. And it’s one way around many of the barriers to change that have held philanthropy back from reaching more of its potential.”

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP.

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