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Why Philanthropy Must Speak Out: An Interview with Grant Oliphant

By Nell Edgington



In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments (and frequent contributor to their excellent blog).

Prior to running The Heinz Endowments, Grant was president and chief executive officer of The Pittsburgh Foundation for six years. Before that, he served as press secretary to the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz from 1988 until the senator’s death in 1991.

Grant frequently leads community conversations around critical issues such as public school reform, civic design, the ongoing sustainability of anchor institutions, domestic violence, riverfront development and various socio-economic concerns. He also serves extensively on the boards of local nonprofit and national sector organizations, including the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which he chairs. He has also served on the boards of Grantmakers Evaluation Network, Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, and the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance.

You can read other conversations with social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: You have written on the Heinz blog and elsewhere about the importance of philanthropists speaking out against government policies or decisions that are at odds with their work. However, philanthropy is often hesitant, because of both real and perceived limitations, to become too political. What do you think philanthropists, and the nonprofits they fund, can and should do to speak out against political decisions that are at odds with their missions?

Grant: This question makes my brain hurt. I mean, seriously, we live in a time when everything is labeled as political—affirming the science of climate change, standing up for equity, denouncing racism, defending basic math, you name it. A cultural institution we support recently faced criticism from its own docents for posting an inclusion policy they condemned as “political” because it welcomed all visitors, including immigrants. When your core values are suddenly defined as political, what are you going to do—run from your ideals and hope they somehow survive in the shadows? Or are you going to step into the light and advocate for what you say you believe in?

We have to remember this is about policy and the marketplace of ideas and values, not politics. Philanthropy shouldn’t be about trying to influence who wins an election, and private philanthropy can’t lobby on specific legislation. But foundations of all ideological bents have long understood that on some issues, the only way to bring about meaningful change is to persuade the broader culture that it matters and then translate that into supportive policy. In telling the story of its own impact, philanthropy loves to point at successes like universal vaccinations. But now even vaccines are under attack, along with the science informing them. So what should philanthropy do—stand mutely by and pretend it doesn’t have a point of view on saving lives and preventing suffering, or for that matter on the importance of science as a basic decision-making tool for public policy? You can’t win the battle of ideas by hiding.

We have to speak honestly about the perils of policy rooted in magical thinking and so-called alternative facts. That sort of candor is described as courageous in the foundation world, but really what’s brave about speaking the truth when everything you believe in and work for is under attack? We are witnessing a jaw-dropping assault on fundamental institutions of democracy—the press, the judiciary, free speech, basic notions of civility, even the right of the people to assemble. The American system of philanthropy, which hinges on an engaged civic sector, simply cannot work in the context of dysfunctional or broken democracy. Speaking out against these attacks is basic self-defense for the sector but it’s so much more than that. It’s really a defense of the democratic freedoms and governance that make philanthropy matter in the first place. And if we’re not willing to fight for that, then what in the world do we stand for?

Nell: Some argue that philanthropy is at least partly to blame for the divides currently impacting our country because philanthropy is a result of wealth inequality and sometimes perpetuates inequity. What are your thoughts on that?

Grant: Martin Luther King commented on this far more eloquently than I ever can, and recently Darren Walker at The Ford Foundation has done some excellent writing on it. There’s not much more I can add. No question, the ideal goal for philanthropy should be to help create a society where it is no longer necessary. And it’s fair to ask whether a by-product of massive wealth disparity can really address the social inequity that in some ways helps drive it.

At the same time, to dismiss philanthropy as merely a symptom of inequality is to understate both the enormous value of enterprise creation and the positive social impulse that drives philanthropy at its best. Foundations and other forms of philanthropy may be imperfect expressions of an imperfect system but they also can do tremendous good, especially at a time when government is paralyzed and the private sector has become so removed from social and community concerns.
So much of the social good that philanthropy has helped support—from sensible thinking on climate change to marriage equality—is being unraveled right now, and that’s terrifying. But if nothing else maybe it’s giving those of us who are privileged to work in this field a renewed appreciation for the value philanthropy really can contribute and a heightened sense of responsibility and urgency to actually deliver it.

Nell: What role do facts play? We are arguably living in a “post-truth” world where opposing sides can no longer agree on a common set of facts. How can the social change sector hope to create change when there is no longer agreement about what the current reality is? What do we do about that?

Grant: I’d joke that the Bowling Green massacre changed my thinking on this, but I worry folks might miss the sarcasm. This is a scary time. We have leaders just making stuff up and hiding behind disinformation machines posing as media. It’s bizarre but that’s the landscape now, and I hope the social sector wakes up to it in two critical ways.

First, we need to stop confusing facts with persuasion. Our sector loves to throw data at people and preach from what we assume is our scientific and moral high ground. But neuroscience has taught us that people rely more on their emotions and “gut feelings” to make important decisions than they do on reason. It turns out we are more likely to be persuaded by a good story than by a good fact. I’ve long thought our sector could do better at simply bearing witness, at telling stories that help people see themselves in the lives and suffering of others. That’s the most basic work of philanthropy, this process of sowing compassion. In a time of unprecedented division when humanity’s notions of who we mean by “us” are being challenged as never before, philanthropy needs to get back to that.

But, second, at the same time we need to fight like hell against the normalization of “alternative facts.” Data may be a weak tool to shift closely held beliefs but over time it can move civilizations. Think about how dismissive the medical establishment was initially of the idea that germs cause disease and how conscious our society is today of antibacterial everything. Truth wins in the end, but we need to remember the end can take a long, long time to arrive. Give up on science and suddenly you end up in the Dark Ages for a millennium. For philanthropy that means continuing to invest in science and research, but it also means investing in the institutions and processes that help facts become more broadly known, including journalism. And it means not backing off when propagandists try to peddle their lies as just an alternate reality. We need to have the courage to call that nonsense out.

Nell: For many in the social change sector these are dark days. What gives you hope?

Grant: Oh wow, I could so easily sink sanctimonious piety here, which is not what any of us needs right now. The truth is, there are plenty of days I despair over what’s happening, and it’s important to acknowledge that. If you work in the social sector and these aren’t dark days for you, then you seriously aren’t paying attention.

For me, though, hope is connected with purpose. If we only feel hope when it seems like we’re making progress or winning, then that’s not really hope, is it? It’s expectation. And there is absolutely nothing about the goals we are fighting for that can be taken for granted. Every single step of humanity’s journey toward justice and sustainable community has been marked by hardship and reversals, and often outright losses, so who are we in this era to only feel hope if the circumstances are right?

If it were up to me, Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” would be required reading for us all right now, because the only way any of this gets better is if people of good intent keep pushing, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be, even when it feels like we’ve lost on something irredeemable, like the climate. We have to be humble enough to own that none of us ever really “controls” anything, but over time somehow progress still happens as long as we keep at it.

The other day the President tried to drag my hometown of Pittsburgh into his myopic decision on the Paris climate accords. I loved how local leaders here and all over the country responded with a collective roar of “no way,” which was not just about saying “that isn’t us” but went beyond that to “we’ll do it ourselves.” That’s what gives me hope—all the people I get to work with every day who greet the darkness by bringing the light of their own creativity and unrelenting determination.

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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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3 Comments to Why Philanthropy Must Speak Out: An Interview with Grant Oliphant

Michael Bailin
July 28, 2017

Great interview of Grant Oliphant by Nell Edgington, two very wise Philanthropists.

Nell Edgington
July 28, 2017

Thanks Michael, I appreciate it!

V. Chandra
August 2, 2017

Very thoughtful argument for intelligent philanthropy in a world full of inequities. I wish there were a way to drive out the crooks who take the gullible for a ride in the name of philanthropy. I know there are online reviews and ratings to help us choose our charities wisely, but I am talking about throwing all the known swindlers and scammers into oblivion not merely to stay away from. They continue to prey on a lot of unsuspecting folks as we all know. My mail, especially at year-end, is flooded with solicitations, more than half of which look patently fraudulent to me.

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