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Can Philanthropy Lead In These Challenging Times?

By Nell Edgington



Last week I was in Boston for the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders talking about how philanthropy should respond in these difficult times. If you couldn’t make the conference and want a run down of the three days, CEP’s Ethan McCoy recapped Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 on the CEP blog. And you can also see the #CEP2017 Twitter feed.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, so I wanted to share a few of my takeaways.

The conference was bookended by two incredible speakers. I was blown away by the first night’s keynote address by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works to end mass incarceration and challenge racial and economic injustice.

He gave a completely mesmerizing speech about the historic roots of racial inequity and injustice and how we can move forward from America’s past and present toward a more just and equitable society. He argued that there are four things we must do:

  1. “Get proximate” to communities we want to help
  2. Work to understand and change the long-standing American narrative of racial difference
  3. Stay hopeful, and
  4. Accept that the work will be uncomfortable

It is impossible to do justice to his amazing speech, so I offer his Ted Talk from 2012 to show you what a thought-provoking speaker he is. I also plan to read his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about how to fix our broken criminal justice system.

The final keynote speaker of the conference, Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, gave a riveting talk about looking at historic leaders, like Ernest Shackleton — an explorer who led expeditions to the Antarctic — to draw lessons about leadership in our current times.

She argued that “leaders are not born, they are made.” Every single one of us could step up and become a leader. And what defines a real leader is that “effective leaders help us overcome the limitation of our own selfishness, weakness, laziness, fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In between those two amazing speakers were breakouts and plenaries that encouraged philanthropy to step up to the plate. There were urgings for foundation leaders to embrace advocacy, support nonprofit sustainability, explore state-by-state (instead of national) strategies for social change, listen to beneficiaries, understand their own networks, and fund evaluation, among other things. There certainly was an underlying theme that philanthropists should do more and be more in this new political era.

And these are incredibly challenging times, to be sure. Professor of Economics at Stanford, Raj Chetty, painted a very dire picture of income inequality in the U.S. Things have only gotten worse in the past several decades. In fact, as the slide below demonstrates, “the American Dream” is actually now more attainable in the U.K., Denmark and Canada than it is in the United States.

The final plenary session of the conference really pushed philanthropists to think hard about whether they are helping or hurting the causes they support. Jim Canales, President of the Barr Foundation, led a conversation among Sacha Pfeiffer (reporter from the Boston Globe), Vu Le (author of the Nonprofits With Balls blog), Grant Oliphant (president of the Heinz Endowments), and Linsey McGoey (senior lecturer at the University of Essex) critiquing philanthropy’s influence.

In particular, I really appreciated Linsey McGoey’s determination to push philanthropy farther, arguing that philanthropists working on issues of inequity need to address the much larger systems at work: “If foundations care about inequality, they should focus on the tax code and reduced government spending that worsens inequality.”

The CEP conference was an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at itself and, I hope, find the determination to step up as the leaders we so desperately need now.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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