The Music of Philanthropy

These past few months have marked my third summer living in Connecticut. After far too long, I decided it was finally time to take advantage of New England’s incredible music scene. And so I spent an amazing evening at the Newport Jazz Festival and another, a few weeks later, at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Both were breathtaking concerts. While I took in the cool air and amazing music, I allowed my mind to wander. Remembering that I had volunteered to write this blog post, I started to think about philanthropy. As the sounds washed over me, I began to think about the characteristics of effective philanthropy and how they relate to music — is effective philanthropy more like classical music or jazz?

Classical music requires musicians who have committed years to practice and study. It is rigorous and precise in execution; there is perfect structure with movements and a beautifully written score; order is maintained; and notes are played in perfect union. The conductor leads the musicians through repeated themes, drawing out soloists and sections of the orchestra. Their conducting does not take detours or risks that have not been well-rehearsed. The piece of music does not evolve and change greatly, but rather remains a record of singular talent welcoming limited interpretation and individual style. It is this precision and purity that excites, impresses, and moves listeners so deeply — how remarkably stunning it is to experience a full orchestra playing a classic masterwork.

Jazz, on the other hand, is an art form that was born of an amalgamation of musical forms and cultures from African American communities to European experiences. It continues as a collective cultural experience that invites broad engagement from musicians and audiences. It embraces the largest collaborative of creativity and talent possible by being in its nature improvisational. In some ways, jazz music is never fully finished; musicians continue to riff on themes created by others, adding to the richness and experience of the music over time. It is innovation at its core because each new piece is created by an additive process, a recombination of parts and ideas.

Philanthropy often feels less like jazz and more like classical music — created by the elite for participation by the few, and not allowing for change, broader creativity, or participation. Do not misunderstand me — I love classical music and believe in its value to celebrate history and the present, moving and inspiring people in meaningful ways. But classical music is not regularly the inspiration of broad movements, nor is it open to the largest number of participants in its creation and experience.

There is a need for music and philanthropy to engage people in ways that reflect stories of everyday struggle — victory and resilience in the language of our common experience and humanity — to be effective. Like our history, our art has reinforced cultural paradigms that are inaccurate and need to be redirected to allow for the reality of our diversity. It moves us collectively to innovate and step forward from our history. Philanthropy must in this way be more like jazz. It must engage contribution at every level and reflect the diversity of the communities and cultures it seeks to serve while also taking risks to build knowledge and collective wisdom.  We must build on a foundation of things we have learned, but venture out on various themes and experiments that will lead to deeper innovation through cycles of our work. And we must share our experiences and wisdom widely.

Whether it’s jazz or classical, if we have not developed an ear for listening and appreciation, music is meaningless. This too is the challenge and opportunity of effective philanthropy — to learn to listen well and hear the layers of meaning and story in our work, and to train our ears to appreciate moments of discord as mere deviations from our common theme. We must learn to appreciate the diverse tones and cultures that vibrate in our work and give them time and space to develop by listening and understanding their contribution to the overall product. Philanthropy must become more collaborative and improvisational in our grantmaking, reporting, and measuring.  Musicians forgive and celebrate missed notes that find their way back to the melody of the ensemble as a lesson learned and part of the journey. There is much for philanthropy to understand and mimic from the collaborative nature of musical ensembles and the trusting relationships that must be developed in order to make beautiful music.

As I sit and listen in the summer evening breeze, my wish is that philanthropy learn the lessons of jazz:

  • Be innovative in a way that builds on patterns
  • Take risks and value improvisation
  • Invest in forms of work that embrace the largest collaborative of creativity and talent possible
  • Expand the amount of people that can participate by choosing more common forms of expression and communication
  • Choose to be culturally competent
  • Seek diversity because it is where nature and life find strength
  • Understand that real art will come from communal aspirations
  • And to quote Wynton Marsalis, “ make the group idea the money idea”

 This post is part of an occasional series on the CEP blog providing perspectives from regional grantmaking associations on philanthropy and foundation effectiveness.

 Maggie Gunther Osborn is president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, an association of grantmakers committed to promoting and supporting effective philanthropy for the public good. Follow her on Twitter at @OsbornMaggie.

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