Strengthen Your “People Powers”

by Janice Simsohn Shaw | Jan 02, 2015

Your philanthropy involves a robust amount of knowledge and skills, from financial acumen and community know-how to critical thinking skills and organizational abilities. In this issue of Essentials, we look at a handful of key capabilities that can help you work well with the complex and wonderful creatures who surround us in this work: human beings.

Our recent National Conference is fresh on my mind as I write this article. As I reflect on past conferences and other educational programs, I recognize that our sessions on interpersonal topics (e.g., difficult conversations, leadership, humility) have been just as popular—and valuable—as those on other fundamentals (e.g., reading nonprofit financials, streamlining grant applications, evaluating your work). And I’m not surprised.

Philanthropy, from the Greek word for “to love humanity,” is inherently a human enterprise. As such, it can be emotional work. Think of the tug on your heartstrings during an amazing site visit, or the angst before a difficult conversation with a contentious board. And it’s work that involves very diverse people who span different generations, politics, cultures, genders, educational and professional backgrounds, and the list goes on.

In this business of helping to solve complicated social problems, we’re bound by the opportunities and challenges of working with other people to do so. Let’s look at just one giving scenario and the many human components involved.

Philanthropy’s Human Side

Sam Smith founded the Smith Family Foundation when the sale of his manufacturing business exceeded what he and his family needed to live a comfortable life. The foundation board included Sam, his wife and children, and a few close friends and business associates. The foundation essentially operated as a philanthropic checkbook for Smith family interests, supporting alma maters, local social services agencies, and other organizations near and dear to the family. Upon Sam’s passing, the foundation grew fourfold, and his daughter became the new board chair. The board hired staff for the first time and recognized the need for a more strategic giving strategy and additional board members with community or issue expertise.

What are just a few human components at play? To start, Sam’s family members are mourning his passing while honoring his legacy through the foundation; they also are learning to work together in entirely new ways. Sam’s daughter is finding her voice as a leader and philanthropist in her own right. The newly hired staff are finding their way as individuals, as a team, and in relation to the board. The family lawyer and investment professionals fear the board will choose new advisors in the wake of the endowment jump. Longtime grantees are hoping for larger grants, and other community nonprofits are keen to partner with the foundation. Possible collaborators and consultants are knocking on the door. And, generally in this time of change, everyone close to the foundation is operating in an atmosphere of anticipation and even anxiety.

Sound at all familiar?

Whether you’re managing asset growth, tackling generational succession, refining your mission, or simply doing the work at hand to serve your philanthropic goals, being attentive to the human elements can strengthen your philanthropy and make it more pleasurable.

Effectiveness Skills Explained

In this issue, we look at a number of skills and approaches that can help you develop the “people powers” necessary to work sensitively and effectively with those around you. Some call these topics soft skills, but we think that name downplays their importance in guiding your philanthropy through moments of change as well as its status quo. We call them effectiveness skills instead, and, in the pages that follow, explore:

  • Power dynamics—Your sensitivity to philanthropy’s inherent power dynamics can nurture more open and productive relationships with grantees. Power dynamics also are at play among board members, between board members and staff, and among collaborators; a greater sensitivity to these dynamics will serve your internal operations as well as those with external partners and players. See Navigate the Power of the Purse.
  • Change management—Some say the only constant in our lives—and our philanthropic work—is change. Whether a shifting economic climate, new grantmaking focus, or decision to sunset your philanthropy, being able to manage change thoughtfully can have powerful effects on your work and those involved in it. Keep in mind: Some people adore change, while others detest it. Being aware of common patterns, pitfalls, and opportunities that arise in moments of change— and how those close to your work may react to it—allows you to help your organization maneuver more nimbly. See Manage Change: The Invisible Thread in Our Work.
  • Cultural competency—Funders often invest in organizations serving communities that are very different from the people in their board rooms. How can you bridge this gap with greater sensitivity, awareness, and inclusion? Whether you consider small steps or bold moves in this arena, you’ll put your philanthropy on a path toward more informed investments in the social issues you care about most. See Build a Culturally Competent Board.
  • Facilitation—Facilitating strong meetings, whether a board meeting or grantee convening or funder collaborative, is a critical philanthropy skill and one that can make your work more enjoyable. Facilitation skills can improve everything from one-on-one conversations to community collaborations, as adept facilitation makes space for new voices, moves groups toward creative solutions, and engages diverse stakeholders in the tasks at hand. See Facilitation Tools of the Trade.
  • Mentoring—Formal relationships with those further along in the philanthropic journey can support and nurture both emerging and seasoned leaders, and strengthen their organizations as a result. Whether you are relatively new to philanthropy or an experienced funder, serving as a mentor can enrich your understanding of your own work, support a colleague in his or her journey, and further the field. See Make Way for Mentoring.

Countless other topics—more than space allows us to cover in this issue—also influence our ability to work well with others in the philanthropy space. Here are just a few:

  • Emotional intelligence, or the ability to monitor your own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide your thinking and actions
  • Adaptive leadership, a set of skills and perspectives that some argue characterize great (agile and ever-learning) leaders
  • Having difficult conversations—or, as some call them, courageous ones; there are helpful techniques to know and use
  • Design thinking, an approach to creativity and problem solving that focuses on generating ideas, making selections, and executing solutions via a rapid, iterative approach
  • Network-weaving skills, or the ability to connect, build, and tap into networks for greater shared benefit

It didn’t take long working in this field to realize that the art and craft of good giving is, in fact, hard work. Our hope is that you find within this issue ideas and approaches to bring greater effectiveness and more joy to your giving. Be sure to let us know how paying attention to philanthropy’s human elements influences your work—and the effectiveness skills you want to learn about in future resources.


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