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The Danger of the Nonprofit Savior Complex

You know the Nonprofit Savior Complex, I know you do. It’s when a nonprofit leader begins to believe that she (and only she) cares enough, knows enough, or is enough to fix the massive problem she cares so deeply about.

The positive side to the Savior Complex is it compels people who see an injustice in the world to stand up and do something about it. It is their very belief that they can make a difference that compels them to act, and often to make positive social change. Indeed, it is this altruistic entrepreneurial spirit that drives the social change sector. And it can be a beautiful thing.

But when it is taken too far, the Savior Complex can become dangerous.

Instead of reaching out to other leaders, building networks, being open and brutally honest with funders, demanding more from their board, the Nonprofit Savior instead chooses to go it alone. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen it in myself.

It’s the program director who refuses to take a vacation because she thinks her program will fall apart in her absence. It’s the executive director who rather than demand real engagement from her board, just soldiers on by herself. It’s the activist who marches every weekend — to the detriment of her health, her family, her job — because she thinks no one else will.

The reality is that the complex problems we face cannot be solved by a single savior. Let’s face it, Superman doesn’t exist. So as a true leader you have to create the space — in your own organization, in your own community, in your own social issue area — for others to step up and lead alongside you.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that nonprofit leaders should sit back and let nature take its course, particularly when progressive social issues are seemingly under constant attack.

Rather, I am arguing that you must begin seeing yourself and your organization as part of a larger complex of committed, capable, caring, effective people and organizations. You must move from creating individual action that will only get you so far, to creating coordinated network action.

To move away from the Savior Complex you have to reach out to others, to form partnerships, to build networks. So start by recognizing that others beyond you care just as much, are just as capable (maybe in different ways), and are worthy of your time to figure out how you can work together effectively. There is tremendous power in numbers.

So to overcome the Savior Complex, you can:

You might be surprised as the leaders (within your organization, within your issue area, within your community) step up in the space you have finally left open.

The Savior Complex is ultimately about an overactive ego. Someone who suffers from the Savior Complex fundamentally (but perhaps unconsciously) believes that no one can or will do it as well as she does. But the fact is that there are others out there. And to truly accelerate change we need more people working together within and across organizations, rather than working themselves to the bone amid an isolated, competitive, singular view of the world.

Photo Credit: Tom Bullock

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Why Women Will Lead the Social Movement For Gun Control

As a mother and a human being, the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Wednesday cut me to the core. As I know it did so many of you.

And as someone who spends my time writing about and advising social change efforts, I am also curious about how growing momentum to create change to the obviously severe social problem of gun violence in America will evolve. Because it can often seem that gun violence is an impossible problem for America to solve. But as Daniel Kibblesmith put it on Twitter, it is not:


True, smoking was once so pervasive in America, and the tobacco lobby so strong that there was little hope that change would happen, but it has. There are now few places where you can smoke inside and smoking rates have dropped dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1965 almost 43% of American adults smoked, in 2014 only 17% did.

History shows that this pattern of social change repeats again and again — from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the legalization of interracial marriage. An issue becomes so egregious that it builds enough critical mass to force change.

Bloomberg did a fascinating graphic of 6 social issues and how quickly they went from a flash point of public interest to a change in federal policy. The issues ranged from prohibition, to women’s suffrage, to abortion. The amount of time that spanned between an issue’s flash point and change to federal law ranged from 2-19 years:


The idea is that once an issue becomes so important to the American public it is only a question of time (and relatively short time at that) before the issue moves through the states to eventually become a federal policy change. As Bloomberg writers Alex Tribou and Keith Collins put it:

“Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

The 10+ year social movement to legalize gay marriage is an excellent example of this. Launched in 2004 as a collaboration among many social change organizations, funders, and experts, by June 2015 (11 short years later) gay marriage became legal across the country.

So, what will it take for Americans, who overwhelmingly support common sense gun legislation, to rise up and convince their elected officials to make change? It is already beginning in many states, with hundreds of gun control laws passed at the state level since Sandy Hook. I think we will see a federal-level change to gun control in the next 5-10 years. It is within the realm of possibility to push the federal government to change gun laws.

And I honestly think that that push will come largely from moms. Women like me, who watched in horror as children the exact same age as my youngest son ran, arms locked with classmates, screaming in terror out of Sandy Hook Elementary and then just 5 years later watched again in horror as children the exact same as my oldest son shared video on SnapChat of the bloodshed they witnessed.

Let me tell you, there is hardly a more powerful force in this world than that of a mother wanting to protect her child. 2018 has been called “The Year of Women” because women are stepping up in record numbers to run for office, to advocate, to volunteer, and even take to the streets all in the name of social change. I think gun violence — violence that increasingly threatens to harm our own children — will compel women who are already stepping up to force change.

As a dear friend and fellow mother texted me Wednesday morning:

“Just reading all the politicians offer their bullshit condolences and take money from the NRA makes me sick.”

And as Margaret Mead (also a mother) famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Yep. I’m telling you. Our leaders’ willingness to turn a blind eye to the daily carnage around us is wrong on every single level and it will and it must change. I don’t think moms are going to take it much longer. Change is coming. Just you watch.

Photo Credit: Slowking4 

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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

It’s fairly common knowledge that in the nonprofit sector the relationship between funders and nonprofit leaders is often fraught. A power imbalance between those with the purse strings and those without can sometimes lead to poor decisions about a nonprofit’s future direction.

The other day I was advising a nonprofit leader — let’s call him “Tim” — about whether he should expand his after-school program to a new school district, an expansion that one of his key foundation funders was championing. Tim was intrigued by the idea because due to a mix of circumstances (high need, proximity to other programs, etc.) investing in this school district had recently become popular among foundations.

But Tim was conflicted because, through years of experience implementing his very successful program, he knew that this new school district would not be a good fit for his program. The school district leadership was not fully invested in Tim’s program and approach, the district was located too far away for the nonprofit to ensure program quality, and the expansion would stretch Tim’s staff too thin, to name just a few of the issues. Despite the drawbacks, Tim was seriously considering expanding to this new district for the sole reason that one of his funders was really keen to see Tim’s program there.

This is a recipe for disaster. It’s an example of a nonprofit leader paying too much attention to the noise. But most troubling, this is an example of a nonprofit leader elevating a funder’s opinion above what the nonprofit leader knows is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

As a nonprofit leader, there are so many interested parties, so many stakeholders, so many voices telling you what is right and what is best. But the problem is that often those voices have inserted their, or their organization’s, self interest. That’s not to say that this foundation leader was acting with malice. Rather I would bet that he was simply acting with a lack of complete information. Perhaps the foundation leader thought, from his limited viewpoint, that Tim’s proven program would be the perfect addition to this troubled school district. But the foundation leader didn’t understand the larger dynamics at play. And if Tim kept quiet he would actually be doing both himself and the foundation a disservice by keeping his expertise out of the equation.

So when faced with a critical decision (and so many competing voices) how do you get clear about the right move for your nonprofit and then articulate that potentially unpopular decision to others?

First, you have to get quiet. I’m serious — take a walk, turn off your devices, go out in the woods, whatever it takes. You simply cannot make a critical strategic decision amid the ringing phones, your staff’s questions, the constant ping of emails, or the lure of social media.

Once you’ve gotten truly quiet ask yourself: “Which of the possible directions facing our nonprofit is most likely to increase our ability to achieve our desired outcomes?” If you haven’t yet articulated your nonprofit’s desired outcomes, then you need a Theory of Change, which is an excellent guiding document when facing critical strategic decisions like this.

In Tim’s case, if he had gotten quiet and asked himself this question, the answer would have been clear. An expansion to the new school district would actually decrease his nonprofit’s ability to achieve their desired outcomes because 1) they were unlikely to achieve those outcomes with the new students (for all of the reasons outlined above), and 2) the additional drain on his staff would likely decrease the outcomes they were already achieving with their current students.

Once you have arrived at your answer (not the answer someone else wants) articulate (on paper if it’s helpful) why this is the right decision for your nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes. Then convince a few board champions of your argument. Finally meet one-on-one with your funder, or whoever is trying to take you away from what you know to be the right path. In a clear, evidence-based, confident way explain the reasons behind the decision you have made.

Making the right decision for your organization might be terrifying at first – especially if you risk losing a key funder. But trust me, making the right decision will put your nonprofit in a much better place in the long run.

In Tim’s case, deciding not to expand to the new school district could result in one of two things: 1) he could convince his funder that this is the right decision and through Tim’s honesty and strategic decision-making solidify the funder’s long-term support, or 2) he could lose a funder who doesn’t have his nonprofit’s best interests at heart. And if Tim has a solid financing plan for his nonprofit, the loss of that single funder does not have to be a death knell for the organization.

Either way he has put his nonprofit on a stronger, more sustainable path.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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Creating Honest Conversations Between Nonprofits and Funders: An Interview With Eric Weinheimer

Eric WeinheimerIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Eric Weinheimer, President and CEO of Forefront, the only regional association that represents grantmakers, nonprofits, advisors, and social entrepreneurs. With 1,100 members in Illinois, Forefront provides education, advocacy, and research, and mobilizes its members around issues that are important to the nonprofit sector.

Prior to his current role, Eric was the CEO of The Cara Program, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive training, job placement, and support services to individuals who are homeless and struggling in poverty. Eric was selected as a member of the Emerging Leaders Program for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and as a Chicago Community Trust Fellow. He was also appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to the Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Enterprise Task Force. He serves on the Advisory Board for the Social Enterprise Initiative at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and on the Board of Directors for the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Nell: Forefront is the only statewide association that has both nonprofit and funder members. How does Forefront deal with the power dynamic that is so often present between grantors and grantees?

Eric: Forefront talks explicitly about the power dynamic in much of our programming and classes, specifically our annual Grantmakers Institute for new program officers. We have candid conversations with these grantmakers and present actual case studies to give them a better understanding of their power and unique position. We also discuss how others perceive them and their roles, and how those perceptions can impact their effectiveness.

Forefront also has a non-solicitation policy that prevents nonprofits and grantmakers from discussing specific requests or proposals with each other when they gather at Forefront. The spirit of that policy also extends to how we bring grantmakers and nonprofits together. When nonprofits and grantmakers meet at Forefront, there is an explicit goal or purpose related to an issue in their fields or in the sector. While the power dynamic still exists, putting the focus on a larger purpose rather than on money helps our members build trust, leading to more genuine and balanced relationships. We also make sure that grantmakers and nonprofits co-chair some of our affinity groups to ensure balanced perspectives.

Nell: One of Forefront’s biggest initiatives is Real Talk about Real Costs, a series of funder and nonprofit convenings (the first in the nation) to talk about funding the full costs of nonprofit organizations. What have you learned through this series both about how to encourage more effective conversations between nonprofits and funders and about how to better support strong nonprofit organizations?

Eric: In the conversation on Real Costs we’ve learned that it’s not about creating another resource or a toolkit. Its not about what grantmakers or nonprofits should or should not do. Rather, it’s about starting an honest conversation. There are so many grantmakers and nonprofits that haven’t had the opportunity to dig in and engage with this work, either independently or with feedback from their counterparts. Our value-add is to catalyze these conversations. Forefront’s role is to create the space for honest dialogue, mobilize our members around this issue, promote best practices, and curate and share the newest research. It’s a slow and gradual process, but it ultimately leads to change in awareness, understanding and behavior.

Nell: How far do you think the national social sector has come in terms of more effectively supporting strong nonprofits and building more transparent and effective funder/nonprofit relationships?

Eric: We’ve certainly made some progress in the last 15 years, but we have a long way to go. It’s encouraging to see more funders express interest in general operating support and capacity building. However, too often, funders’ still feel the need to be in control and prescribe certain solutions rather than engage communities for their feedback and ideas.

Likewise, nonprofits have become more transparent, but they are still too reluctant to admit to challenges or failures because of possible consequences to their funding. Funders could model this practice for the nonprofits much more than they currently do. Funder transparency is only in its infancy.

Nell: Your national counterpart, Independent Sector — a national membership association of nonprofits and funders — had a recent change in leadership with Dan Cardinali taking the helm. What would you like to see Independent Sector doing to move this work forward on the national stage?

Eric: Dan is terrific – smart, experienced, strategic and passionate. He will do a great job. Under his leadership, Independent Sector (IS) has a real opportunity to be the connective tissue for our sector and elevate the good work that is happening around the country. I would encourage Dan to focus on a few of the critical issues facing our sector, both internal and external. Whether it be real costs, transparency, the power dynamic, or policy and advocacy, IS can highlight and amplify where real progress is being achieved and help to transport those examples to other locations. Once new practices take hold in certain geographic locations, other regions will follow suit. Organizations are eager for strong leadership that informs, inspires and mobilizes them to action.

Photo Credit: Forefront

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When The Searing Truth Comes Into Focus

It has been a really difficult couple of weeks. And I think for those of us in the social change sector — the sector that works for equity, justice, compassion, inclusion, civility — these days have been particularly challenging. The events in Charlottesville have made obvious that there is so much work to do, and in fact, battles that we thought we had made real progress on (against Nazi-ism, anti-semitism, rampant racism) are far from over.

But if there is any silver lining to the events of the past weeks, it is perhaps that America is beginning to reckon with its past. One thing that has brought me solace during this time is Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu’s beautiful speech from last May where he described why he led an effort to remove several confederate monuments in New Orleans. (An effort, by the way, that came out of an interesting –and now expanding — philanthropic experiment in bringing community together to have open, honest conversations).

Landrieu gave a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we must take down these monuments. As he put it:

“These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city…

[A] friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.”

Particularly in these times when leaders are in such short supply, I find Mitch Landrieu’s leadership and eloquent arguments inspiring.

He sees in this challenging moment an opportunity for Americans to come together, recognize our past, and create together a more just, inclusive and equitable future, as he described:

“Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians…A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place. We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves…if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces … would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story? We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals. We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is what really makes America great and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America. Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in, all of the way. It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes.”

As any good leader does, Mitch Landrieu helps us rise above division, turmoil, and adversity and see a new, better path. Perhaps what we are experiencing in America right now — the vitriol, the divisiveness — is an opportunity for us to confront our past and more consciously and inclusively create our future.

Photo Credit: Workers securing straps to the Robert E Lee statue at Lee Circle prior to it being removed from atop the column, May 19, 2017, Infrogmation of New Orleans.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June & July 2017

Since I was on vacation (and off social media) for a chunk of June, I decided to combine the June and July 10 Great Reads lists into one.

But that proved to be a tricky feat, since there was no shortage of activity in the world of social change during those two months. From the U.S. leaving the Paris Climate Accord and cities stepping up in its wake, to a new book from philanthropy expert David Callahan, to a new approach to the healthcare debate, to ways nonprofits are using artificial intelligence for good, it was a busy couple of months. In my (limited) view, these were the 10 best reads in the world of social change in June and July.

But I am quite sure that I missed some great stuff during those months, so feel free to add to the list in the comments.

And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists, go here.

  1. President Trump announced in June that the U.S. would leave the Paris Climate Agreement, making us one of only three countries in the world that are not participating. Lest you think there’s nothing to worry about, check out this interactive map that projects how hot your city could be by 2100. But governors, mayors, and business and nonprofit leaders across the country defiantly stepped up to outline how they would fight climate change without the federal government.  Even on an individual level, there are things you can do to combat climate change, says a new study. And Tate Williams argued that philanthropy must now step up to fund a comprehensive social movement to combat climate change.

  2. Speaking of philanthropy funding social movements, Kate Kroeger from the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights explained how funders can support civic action in our current political environment,  and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy put out a call to social movement leaders for ideas on how to do just that.

  3. As Republicans in Congress continued to struggle to function as a party, some took a look at what’s going on with the Democratic party. Caroline Levine wondered if the Democratic party can change enough to effectively engage Millennials. And Lee Drutman argued that the Democrats are suffering from an inability to engage organizers at the local level.

  4. The biggest example of our Congressional leaders struggling to lead may be their inability to fix healthcare, but Malcolm Gladwell suggested a new way to reframe the conversation that could move it forward.

  5. As the Internet of Things, the increasing online connectedness of everyday things, continues to grow, Pew Research explored what the implications are. But at the same time, good old fashioned libraries are being increasingly used, particularly by Millennials.

  6. Artificial intelligence can be a scary, new thing, but nonprofits (not Silicon Valley) are actually leading the pack in developing some pretty socially positive things with it. And Beth Kanter offered some ideas for how nonprofits can use bots to advance their missions.

  7. Lucy Bernholz discussed the importance of a new report from Betterplace Labs that describes how Germany has used technology to integrate 1 million+ refugees. For Lucy, this report is a critical read because we all are, or will, face population displacements, and we must learn how to become resilient together: “This prospect – welcoming, receiving, moving forward together – is our collective future. Lessons learned now, about the politics, social challenges, technological realities of building welcoming and resilient diverse communities is information we can all use.”

  8. David Callahan released a new book, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, which charts the growth over the past two decades in the number and scale of mega philanthropists. He argues they have a new kind of influence on public goods and public policy, perhaps to the detriment of broader, more inclusive civic engagement.  His book found some criticism, which Callahan himself answered.

  9. But at the same time, some like Cathy Cha from the Haas Fund, would argue that we are witnessing a dramatic increase in civic engagement. As she wrote: “At a time when so much is on the line, people are stepping out of their comfort zones and becoming more involved in our democracy. We are marching, participating in spur-of-the-moment protests, volunteering, giving money, and contacting our elected representatives — all in unprecedented numbers, and all in an effort to show we’re paying attention and we care.”

  10. A day before the big announcement that Amazon was taking over grocery giant Wholefoods, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced he was getting into the philanthropy game with a Tweet asking for advice about how to make a difference “right now.” His focus on the short-term, irked many (manymany) philanthropic thought leaders who argued that he should focus on long-term social change. But philanthropic historian, Benjamin Soskis argued that direct charity (like cash transfers to the poor) is actually seeing a resurgence and perhaps for good reason.

Photo Credit: perzon seo

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3 Questions To Regularly Ask Your Development Director

Beyond the mistakes nonprofit leaders often make in staffing their fundraising function, the relationship itself between a nonprofit executive director and the development director (or whatever you call the staff person in charge of bringing money in the door) can often be fraught.

In an ideal world, the executive director and development director have a symbiotic relationship: the development director creates the overall annual financial strategy and regularly updates the executive director on where the organization is on achieving that plan, while the executive director works with higher level money prospects and marshals the board to achieve their fundraising responsibilities.

But we don’t always live in an ideal world. And sometimes, as was the case in a recent coaching session I had with a client, an executive director is in the dark about how the organization is progressing on their money raising efforts.

If that is the case in your nonprofit, here are some key questions to ask your head money raiser:

  1. How does the money we’ve brought in to date compare along each revenue line goal? 
    When you create an annual financing plan for your nonprofit (and if you don’t, get on it), you know how much of each type of revenue (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) you want to come in this year. Then, at any point during the year (and at the very least monthly) you should be asking your chief money raiser, what the organization has actually raised to date for each of those categories. For example, if you are 25% through your fiscal year, but you’ve only raised 5% of your individual revenue goal for the year, that may be a red flag. At the very least it’s cause for conversation with your development director. Perhaps it’s a timing issue (you have a big fundraising campaign closer to the end of the year), and that’s fine. But as the nonprofit leader, you should be able to ask (and get a clear answer to) where the organization’s revenue raising efforts are at any point in time.

  2. How do the numbers and types of gifts we projected compare to what’s actually happening? 
    It’s not enough for a money raiser to have an overall revenue goal for each type of revenue, he also needs to break each of those revenue types down into the number and level of contributed gifts (from individuals), grants (from foundations), or contracts (from government), etc. that will contribute to each revenue line’s overall goal. For example, if your nonprofit has a $250,000 individual donor revenue goal, your development director needs to break that down into the various levels of donors that will make up that $250,000 over the course of the year. You may have both major (one-to-one relationships) and smaller (many-to-one relationships) individual donors. He should project how many donors at each level he will need to hit each part of the individual donor goal. Then he can report to you (again, on at least a monthly basis) how that is progressing. A simple example of such a report (he would fill in the pink areas prior to each update) might look like this:
    And he should create a similar report for the other revenue lines (corporations, government, foundations, etc.) that your nonprofit pursues. The actuals will never completely match what you projected, but this exercise gives you a way to uncover and deal with surprises as they come.

  3. What keeps you up at night?
    Finally, the raw data is not enough. You also want to understand where your development director sees real problems. When you regularly ask this question she may reveal that the board  is not opening enough doors, or her database is inadequate, or the website is not where it needs to be, or her grantwriter needs more help. Then you can strategize together how to overcome those hurdles.

A regular, honest, and data-driven conversation between executive director and development director is the best route to fewer money surprises. And without it, a nonprofit has little hope of achieving financial sustainability .

Photo Credit: Images

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Why Philanthropy Must Speak Out: An Interview with Grant Oliphant

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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