The Need for a “Discerning Heart”

With so much to read, emails on top of new reports on top of blog posts, it feels like a luxury to re-read…anything. When I have a few free minutes, there are a few pieces I try to return to, particularly an essay by Alan Pifer that serves as a regular reminder to me that the attitudes, values, skills, and capabilities of the people working in philanthropy are critically important to its success – even if we in the field often spend more time talking about this or that strategy, research, or framework.

The essay, written in 1984 for the Council on Foundations by Pifer, long-time president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, is called “Speaking Out – Reflections on Thirty Years of Foundation Work.” A fairly ragged copy lives in a folder on my desk, gets pulled out at least once a year, and then dragged around the country. Recently, a very reclined fellow passenger on a flight to Richmond made even the use of my tiny laptop impossible. So out came the essay. I encourage you to read it. Although it’s not easy to find online, there’s a scanned copy here from Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Many of Pifer’s subjects had been written about before and since: he dwells on the particular privilege of private philanthropy, the need for foundations to have clear goals, the challenge of assessing good management of a foundation and, more importantly, assessing its broader effectiveness. I’d quibble with some minor points here and there, but his major point is undeniable and so well expressed – the importance of the “human element” of philanthropy. He writes, “I mean by this the attitudes and behaviors of foundation staff members.” He disdains the false assumption that foundations must remain “neutral” in major questions of policy and exhorts foundations to avoid “institutional paralysis in regard to social and moral issues.” He discusses the importance of the values that are a foundation’s “star to steer by.”

But most importantly, on all of these subjects, he writes about the people – staff and board – who embed values, choose goals, form strategies, and build relationships with grantseekers and recipients. Again and again he returns to the human element and the importance of finding and developing the people who do the work of foundations and philanthropy. And, in a phrase that I’ve never forgotten, he describes the paramount need for foundation staff to have “a discerning heart.”

“Good grants are made with the head, not the heart, is an old saw in the foundation field, and one cannot deny that feelings alone are a risky basis for philanthropic decisionmaking. Nonetheless, I personally believe there is a place for the heart in foundation work, especially in this age of pervasive heartlessness in public life. In the baptismal rite of the Episcopal Church one prays that the child will become a person of ‘discerning heart.’ That, it seems to me is not a bad term for a properly detached and analytical person who is informed by a sense of compassion and a sensitivity to the affective dimensions of personality that may in the end be far more important than highly intellectual ability. Indeed, grantmaking with the head alone is fully as dangerous as grantmaking only with the heart.”

A discerning heart. I couldn’t agree more. Not necessarily the easiest thing to pinpoint in an interview of a prospective foundation program officer or president, but I’d argue important to attempt. And I think it’s important that all of us working to help foundations hold ourselves to the same standard. That phrase certainly captures so much of what we strive for in CEP’s work. Our surveys of grant recipients, donors, and staff all delve into aspects of both head and heart. Of course we ask about the “head” of processes, strategies, knowledge, and helpfulness of resources. But we also ask about fairness, approachability, a sense of feeling valued, and other questions related to the “heart.” And when I personally step in front of a foundation staff, I always think back to Pifer, and try to be guided by his words.

Even if he was writing about foundation staff, his advice, roughly paraphrased, applies to all of us: “If [we] are arrogant, self-important, dogmatic, conscious of power or status, or filled with a sense of omniscience” the work we do cannot be its best. “If, on the other hand, [we] have genuine humility, are conscious of [our] own limitations…are humane, intellectually alive and curious people – men and women above all else eager to learn from others,” then the work we do will probably be better.

I don’t always reach that ideal, but I always try. It’s good advice for foundations and the staff and board they choose to do their work. It’s good advice for all of us here at CEP. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read the essay, and I hope it’ll end up for you, as it has for me, a classic.

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