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Is Giving Back Enough?

January 19, 2016

On December 17, 2015, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by my good friend, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, entitled: Why Giving Back Isn't Enough. In this thought-provoking article, Walker quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."

Walker goes on to assert that "giving back" is necessary, but not sufficient. "We should seek to bring about lasting, systemic change, even if that change might adversely affect us," suggests Walker. "We must bend each act of generosity toward justice."

This op-ed piece came on the heels of a thoughtful article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Srik Gopal and John Kania (November 20, 2015). Entitled, Fostering Systems Change, Gopal and Kania report that a number of major foundations, including Ford, MacArthur and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have recently realigned their giving around themes of systemic change, whether increasing equity, improving health or reducing poverty. But, the authors lament that there is often a gap in philanthropy's understanding of what a systems-change approach means for various aspects of their work.

The authors suggest that foundations should pay close attention to five "simple rules":

  • Build on existing trends and momentum in the system. "To create change in the system, foundations first need to be acutely aware of current trends. They need to know where momentum and energy lie, and they need to know what the arc of long-term change has looked like." The authors recommend mechanisms to ferret out this information on a regular basis, like inviting external stakeholders to share in their views and employing trend-mapping and landscape analysis tools.
  • Pay greater attention to connections and interdependence. "The traditional 'go-it-alone' foundation approach, often driven by a board's need for attribution, conflicts with what is truly needed to move systems. To be effective, foundations need to pay close attention to other organizations and agencies working in the space." To be effective, suggest the authors, foundations need to become matchmakers and collaborators, not just grantmakers.
  • Employ rigor after the strategy has been developed. "The real rigor needs to happen after the strategy has been developed, through intentional feedback loops that help surface information, reexamine assumptions and course correct strategy."
  • Be systemic about measuring systems change. "To effect lasting systemic change, it's critical to understand the factors that are combining to achieve the population outcomes at scale. Adopting this rule means more explicitly articulating desired systems change outcomes and indicators, incorporating more qualitative data, shifting mindsets about what constitutes valuable evidence, and being increasingly comfortable with contribution rather than attribution."
  • "Be the change" by building internal adaptive capacity. According to the authors, "Systems change is not possible without shifts in individual and collective 'habits of mind' that have been entrenched in the way foundations operate, such as valuing content expertise over traits like systems thinking. Adaptive capacity - in other words, the ability to seek new information, see connections, and make ongoing changes - needs to built at three levels: the individual, the team and the organization."

Almost 10 years ago, the American Express Foundation decided to try and bring about a change in the way that emerging leaders were trained and developed as potential senior managers and chief executives of the world's most important nonprofit organizations. Our aim was to help high potential leaders develop the kind of 21st century skills and experiences that would qualify them to tackle the world's most intractable and serious problems, to exponentially increase their capacity to be community and world leaders, and to ensure that they stay in the sector long enough to accomplish these goals.

We set out to form partnerships with the world's best leadership development programs, and to provide the resources that nonprofit organizations needed to both create and expand their own professional development programs, but also to participate in external programs that might be beyond their financial reach. Through collaborations with organizations like the Center for Creative Leadership, Common Purpose, the Thunderbird School, Aspen Institute and Ashoka, we helped create a comprehensive continuum of premier training programs that have assisted over 2,200 emerging leaders in intensive, multi-disciplinary, on-site and transformative classes. We also regularly bring these partners together to share best practices and to examine our individual barriers and opportunities.

In addition, individual grants to hundreds of nonprofit organizations and networks have resulted in over 16,000 emerging leaders being trained through our sponsored programs. To ensure the sustainability of these programs, we often work with our grant recipients to bring on board other funders and connect them to additional resources when needed.

But, our work is just beginning. What we also need is scale. To that end, we served as a catalyst to bring together a consortium of nonprofit organizations and foundations, including Independent Sector, Common Good Careers, the Aspen Institute, the Corporation for National and Community Service, Public Allies, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to create an online platform to deliver top notch leadership development programs to anyone in the world seeking to expand their knowledge and abilities in service to the charitable sector. Dubbed, and curated by the Presidio Institute, this online platform uniquely focuses on tri-sector collaboration and seeks to alter the system of delivering quality training programs - and to encourage service providers to create such programs -- for these sectors.

As a complement to, we also supported the Acumen Fund to create and develop its own online platform, called +Acumen, which is designed to help train, connect and empower a generation of social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. Last year along, over 275,000 people from around the globe signed up for online courses with +Acumen and over 10,000 completed them - providing evidence of the need and demand that exists for such programs.

While the system for training the next generation of nonprofit leaders wasn't broken when we entered it, it was clearly in need of a shot in the arm in terms of resources and attention. And while the kind of economic injustice that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was writing about may not be the root cause of insufficient resources being devoted to developing nonprofit leaders, it's our hope that approaching the need in a systemic and adaptive manner has encouraged thousands of young leaders to grow and develop in the sector so that issues of justice and inequality can be more readily and effectively tackled by the myriad of nonprofit organizations around the globe that seek to "be the change."

If you have a thought or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and post it there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.


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