As I leave a conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), I find myself reflecting on our progress as a field in understanding what exactly constitutes “effective philanthropy.” At the heart of CEP’s approach has been collecting data to learn more about the practices that may contribute to effectiveness. Through various research reports and survey instruments, CEP has helped many foundations, including ours, to understand our work better and, we hope, to make us more effective.
This emphasis on data collection is both commendable and necessary. However, we ought to consider what other attributes, often not grounded in data, may contribute to effective philanthropy. Let me propose three attributes that, while not lending themselves to easy measurement and far more subjective , strike me as vital to the success of any philanthropic enterprise: listening, synthesizing, and sharing.
Listening: Because of the resources at our disposal, we can meet with just about anyone we’d like to and obtain about any knowledge that is available. This access provides us with a unique platform for learning, but it also requires us to be active and authentic listeners. The power dynamic inherent to philanthropy makes it critical that we resist the temptation to talk more than listen, precisely because people will always listen politely to anything we have to say, regardless of its utility.
CEP’s Grantee Perception Report® has helped many foundations listen to their grantees, and its confidentiality helps overcome some of the power dynamic. But foundations’ attempts to listen must go deeper. How can we listen effectively and authentically? Here, social media can play a useful role for philanthropy. Twitter and other social media platforms are powerful tools to stay attuned to the broader environment and spot trends that can inform our work. We can listen to what others are talking about and participate in and learn from those exchanges. We can integrate ideas from the field into our work. Moreover, these new applications accelerate our ability to learn in real time..
Synthesizing: Precisely because of our access to information, one of the most powerful roles philanthropy can play is to synthesize the large volume of information at our disposal. We can make a valuable contribution to our field if we reflect back what we are hearing, frame the emerging themes and issues, and offer hypotheses about the opportunities before us.
For example, a number of years ago here at the James Irvine Foundation we published a report on critical issues facing the arts in California. The final product reflected more of a synthesis of what we were learning from the field rather than unveiling new ideas. What surprised us was how valuable the arts community found this synthesis. The community’s eager reception of the report speaks volumes about this valuable, and often underused, role of synthesizer that we can play as foundations.
Sharing: Every foundation has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. Now, we need to share this learning more broadly. Doing so requires us to be as comfortable in sharing our mistakes and shortcomings as we may be in pointing to our successes.
Several years ago we published a report about one of our major initiatives that was, in retrospect, flawed in both its design and initial execution. We learned a great deal from this experience and wanted others to learn from our mistakes as well. The fact that this report is still cited – four years later – speaks to the reality that philanthropy as a field remains uncomfortable sharing its mistakes and even failures, although there are recent commendable examples, such as a report from the Northwest Area Foundation, that suggest this may be changing.
I don’t know of any foundation that does not want to be effective. CEP has made enormous contributions in the past decade in helping us understand ourselves, and that should be celebrated. Still, we can’t be complacent as a field, and that is why I believe that listening, synthesizing, and sharing must animate our work.
At the heart of these concepts lies our need to embrace humility: the humility to know that working in philanthropy does not automatically confer wisdom upon us; the humility to recognize that the partners we are privileged to support face the much harder task; and the humility to acknowledge that we have a great deal to learn and an obligation to share that learning. This embrace of humility, in all of its forms, ultimately contributes to effective philanthropy. Now, if we could measure and track that, what a contribution that would be.
Jim Canales is president and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation