Stronger Philanthropy: What Will It Take?

Jasmine Sudarkasa

As a new fellow at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, one thing that has surprised me most is the constant advice I receive on my career in philanthropy. I am new to the sector, and thus appreciate the unique opportunity to receive thoughtful advice on my personal (and often idealistic) agenda to change the world. I have a simple hypothesis: the people who work in philanthropy have a common commitment to good, but the ways we decide what is and isn’t “good” vary wildly. The rubber hits the road when we embed our personal values in strategic decisions, and the balancing act between the two is what I consider effective philanthropy.

With this in mind, I looked forward to attending CEP’s Stronger Philanthropy conference, which took place in Minneapolis earlier this month. As a former capacity builder, I arrived at the conference hoping to learn more about the thoughtful application of values to practice. When I worked with nonprofits prior to my current role, it felt as if the skills required to support effective organizations could be learned with practice, but that the theory behind how funders made decisions was less accessible. I hoped to leave Minneapolis with a better understanding of the conversations about efficacy in the sector, and how to understand the political and professional in this setting. Under the premise of Stronger Philanthropy, the conference made me consider myself.

I received amazing advice throughout the week, which quickly emerged as the conference’s underlying theme. Small phrases and frank moments of pause are what I have carried with me, and I thought I’d share two of them here — for both those who missed them and those who, like me, were taken by them.

1: “For the true leader, it is not about you, but it is all about you. Be you.” 

When Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments and chair of the CEP Board, shared this piece of advice in his opening remarks, I felt it as a response to a fear that many I’ve listened to seem to have. In an increasingly divisive civic landscape, the burden to be nonpartisan and yet accountable seems heavy. The complex moral responsibilities that come with allocating money can be challenging, especially in moments of civic uncertainty. Effective practice seems to be more and more concerned with responsible practice in a time of climate change, political polarization, and inequity.

How do we stay open to each other? How do we manage the responsibility to act without prejudice? Political philosopher Michael Sandel’s opening plenary underscored this tension — the question of money and markets is so often a question of how we allocate value to what money can and can’t buy, and so much of that is personal.

This is why I so appreciated the simplicity of Grant’s advice. He implored the group to remember that we are not the ones at risk of many of the problems we try to solve, but that our approaches to finding answers are very much reflective of who we are. Understanding that the needs of the sector exist independent of us — but that our personal journeys inform its efficacy — helped shape my understanding of how to stay open to strategies and opinions that may differ from my own.

2: “Don’t get comfortable.” 

In a stolen moment with one of the conference’s panelists, I was told two things: don’t rush to decide on your future, but don’t allow yourself to get too comfortable. While this advice was given in the context of career and personal growth, I found that this critical piece of advice on pacing resonated throughout the conference in a different way. Sessions I attended underscored a need to pay more attention to the process of grantmaking than to the outcomes, but with an urgency to act now. In one session, a panelist suggested that the “luxury of strategy is gone; the framework for action is good enough for now.” Conversations about spending down and perpetuity inevitably came down to intentional choices around impact, and in the plenary on “Philanthropy’s Role in Moving Beyond Political Divisions,” both “sides” agreed that action and collaboration needed to be a focal point.

This thread of urgency of purpose was embedded in conversations on equity and strategy alike. How do we reconcile what feels like chaos into ordered and relevant practice? The advice I received felt like, at least, a pivot point. By striving to learn as fast as possible from the strategies and principles that we wed to complex social change, and at the same time recognizing when action is needed, philanthropy can continue to be effective in unprecedented times.

I came to the conference with a question about the balance between personal values and strategic decisions. I wondered how the sessions I’d attend might offer insights into how to apply methods like outcomes and strategy to what feel like increasingly abstract challenges. While many offered new approaches to understanding the personal and the urgency of now, I still wonder how we answer a question that law and religion scholar John Inazu posed: “What is the problem we are hiring ourselves to solve?” How do we consider the larger implications of our work in support of a so-called “modest unity?”

If stronger philanthropy is a question of recognizing the need to stay open to collaboration, be mindful of our personal lens, and act with a sense of urgency, I feel encouraged by my time in Minneapolis.

Jasmine Sudarkasa is the program fellow for the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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