Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More Than Money - Foundations As Strategic Partners

By Chris Gates, Executive Director,
PACE - Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement

As one of 38 affinity groups of the Council on Foundations, people are often confused about the role that we play in the philanthropic sector. PACE, and other affinity groups like it, works as a learning collaborative of funders doing work in the fields of civic engagement and democratic theory and practice. We think together, we share information, we learn together and we use each other as sounding boards. But we're a learning collaborative, not a funding collaborative, so when folks either send me proposals or ask for specific fundraising advice, I'm often at a loss about what kind of advice I can or should provide.

But after a fair amount of reflection, I've decided there is one piece of advice about philanthropy that I can offer without equivocation, and that is for non-profits to view foundations as a source of something more than money. Too often non-profits come to program officers who have been funding work in their fields for years, even decades, and simply make an ask for money, without ever first having a conversation about the goals and the nature of the work being proposed. The truth is that the days of foundations doing business as venture capitalists for social entrepreneurs are long gone. In those days some funders would simply make a grant to an interesting person with an interesting idea who might have a promising track record, and then see what happened. In that old world of a more patient philanthropy there were only two possible outcomes, either the project would succeed or the field would learn something from it's failure.

The field of philanthropy no longer has that much patience, or that kind of appetite for failure, and now the phrase that best describes the current state of much of the field is 'strategic philanthropy'. This is a concept where the funder is more of a partner with the grantee, both in the goals and intentions of the work and in the mechanics of how that work takes place. There is a larger premium placed on partnership and, frankly, a larger premium placed on success. Foundations are interested in seeing progress in real time and so have become much more committed to funding work that will result in measurable progress within the time-span of the grant. On the downside, 'strategic philanthropy' can sometimes turn into situations where foundations simply negotiate what amounts to a contract for a book of work from a non-profit. In these instances the foundation is very much in charge and serves as the designer and director of the work. But in other instances non-profits and foundations can become creative partners in the process of indentifying promising avenues for social change and build on their collective knowledge to create cutting edge strategies that make a real difference in real time.

So the best advice I can give to non-profits is to do your research, find foundations who might be logical partners in your work based on their past funding, get to know them, learn about what matters to them, ask them what they think, be willing to float ideas--not proposals--past them and think of them as allies and partners in your work. There is no doubt that the relationship between the non-profit sector and the philanthropic community isn't what it used to be and is in the process of evolving, and that has the prospect of either being a really good thing or presenting a real challenge.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Utopian Storytelling

By John Esterle

What does utopia mean to you?

For most of us the word conjures up images of an idyllic world -- so idyllic in fact as to be seen as something that's completely unrealistic or has an inevitable dark, social engineering side to it. Filmmaker Sam Green creatively explores different facets of the notion of utopia and the utopian impluse in both his new documentary, The Universal Language (TWI provided some support) and in his "live" documentary, Utopia in Four Movements, which he's taken on the road this past year.

The Universal Language is a lovely profile of
Esperanto, tinged with hope and sadness, humor and humanity. Watch for it when it comes out. I haven't seen Utopia in Four Movements yet but I hope to someday as it sounds like a compelling answer to a question I often wonder about: What sticks in a media saturated world?

I had a very stimulating lunch with Sam yesterday and we covered a lot of territory in our conversation, including themes that often crop up in this blog: the importance of storytelling, of language, and of attending to
how we engage with each other to imagine and create a better world.

Here's a quote from an
interview Sam did that particularly resonates with me:

"I'm not so interested in "a utopia" -- some kind of place or society that would be utopia. I'm much more interested in the Utopian -- a moment or gesture or act that evokes a radically better world. Art, I think, can certainly do this. In fact, art is very well-suited for the task. My own personal feeling is that art that is proscriptive, that flattens things out to bullet points and clear-cut answers is often dull. What I like is art that embraces complexity and contradiction and the messiness of human experience and who we are. I like art that opens up possibilities."

Besides agreeing with what he says here, I'm struck at how I could replace "art" with "dialogue" and it have it still ring true for me.

Anyway, as I look out my window on a sunny San Francisco day (it's been cold and gray a lot lately) I'm thinking of how dreaming big links with being in the moment, and of how TWI's vision is grounded in -- dare I say -- a Utopian belief that we can transform our world one conversation, one connection, one relationship at a time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Giving on the Right-Side of the Brain: Beauty = Truth

By CJ Callen

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” – Jon Keats

"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” - Galileo Galilei

Once I took a night class on “drawing on the right-side of the brain” based on the book of the same title. The instructor asked us to draw a flower and so I dutifully conjured up from my head that lame representative image that I placed on paper. Next she placed a real flower on the table and talked to us about using our right brain to see the flower. I then drew a flower, capturing its intricate lines and its spirit – the real beauty of nature in front of me. I was startled; I can draw! I sometimes show people the “before and after” drawings and they cannot believe that the same person did both. Truth is stranger than fiction.

That was a powerful lesson about the difference between using the left brain (logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective, looks at parts) and using the right brain (random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing, sees the whole). Since then, I have let go to tap into my right-brain, which is oddly predominant given I am a trained lawyer (but not so odd given that I am also a daydreamer and student of philosophy). As a board member of a foundation with an unusual and explicit focus on process, I delight at the opportunities to put my right brain to use to engage in some right-brained philanthropy. Yes, that does exist and there even is a blog spot devoted to the subject

I would like to add to the conversation the notion of the art of philanthropy. I ask others to think of the promising possibilities that would emerge if philanthropy embraced right-brained approaches that are driven by aesthetics. And since truth is beauty, well, you can see where I am going.

For all that philanthropy is doing to help solve the world’s problems, it is set-up for failure if its “house of problem-solving” is not built on truth. My simple proposition is that using the right brain to see the true lines and complexity of everything – whether flower, social construct, or pressing social issue – is indispensable to forging real solutions. A strategy is really just a proposition and those are more likely to test well and seed solutions if firmly planted in the truth.

Now sometimes that truth might not be as beautiful as a flower but it will have its own beauty, sure enough. I always say that the one thing that inspires me is “beauty” and everything falls from that.

If philanthropy re-organizes itself on this principle by moving confidently into solidly right-brain territory and leading like artists inspired by beauty/truth, I can only imagine what fruits it/we might bare. If nothing else, it/we have nothing to lose in trying it on for size since the world is in dire need of saving. My wish: let philanthropy discover its own truth and beauty through deeper appreciation and valuation of all things right-brained.

At TWI we are having a board retreat this summer and now I have a new goal: working with my fellow board members and the TWI staff and leadership on ways that we as a foundation can model right-brained philanthropy.

If you’re interested, I will let you know how it goes. Oh heck, I will let you know anyway because it sounds like a good story worth telling.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Milllenials: From the Next Generation to the Now Generation

By Pia Infante

Whenever I hear the phrase "the next generation," the first notion that comes to mind is the Star Trek: Next Generation t.v. series which ran from 1987 to 1994. Wow. As I write this I'm realizing this is not a current pop culture reference - dating me as the Gen X'er that I am!

I use it here to refer to Millennials - the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000. And I've been reminded of the phrase because I was pleased to see that a couple of Millennial leaders from our TWI midst have been recently recognized as folks who have already stepped into their potential as the Now generation, not the Next.

Congratulations Ayofemi Kirby, of, and Amy Lazarus, of Sustained Dialogue Campus Network!

The Independent Sector has announced Ayofemi and Amy as members of the 2011 American Express NGen Fellows. This 9-month fellowship is designed to expand and develop the (under 40) non-profit leadership pool's leadership skills and practices.

Ayofemi is the Director of Strategy and Programs for, a long time grantee partner of TWI's and Amy is the Executive Director of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, a newer grantee partner of ours.

We are delighted to see their leadership acknowledged and curious to understand how TWI might better support the trajectory of Now vs. Next.