A Compass Only Works When You Trust It - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

A Compass Only Works When You Trust It

In philanthropy, like in life, we have relatively little ability to control disruptions, internal or external, and the big changes they often portend.

Although we may anticipate an influx of assets upon the sale of a business, or predict the arrival of the next generation, most of us can’t really manage the exact timing and collateral effects of these events.

This begs the question, What defines how each of us reacts to disruption?

In a word: values. As we think about, worry about, and react to disruptions, we do so through the lens of our own values.

Values define each of us as funders. Not in the quantitative sense of number of grants, board size, or even assets. Rather, they are the qualitative part of each of us that centers us. They can be rooted in family tradition, a donor’s intent, your own upbringing, a religious context, or perhaps a life-changing experience.

Take a moment to think about what drives your philanthropy. Unless you are truly a sole practitioner, you need to think about values in concert with the rest of your family, colleagues, and, often, the intent of an original donor, if that isn’t you.

You—and the others with whom you give—need to be aligned on the values that drive your giving.

Name them.

Know them.

Share them.

Embrace them.

And, most important, trust them.

In an ideal world, slow and steady evolution would allow us as funders to drive, rather than be driven by, big change. Alas that world does not exist, and I, for one, am glad. How boring would it be without the excitement and possibilities of new technologies, opportunities, and personal growth?

The challenge grows when disruptions enter our sphere of influence and we are tempted into “knee-jerk philanthropy.” It’s knee-jerk in the sense that we do it without thinking—and I mean truly thinking—about why we are willing to change our giving plans.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. Among the great abilities we have as funders operating with minimal staff are opportunities to be nimble, agile, and responsive if we choose. Government can’t do that, and we should not be afraid to thoughtfully change our plans.

That’s where our values come into play.

Like a compass, values guide us toward decisions that align with who we are. But a compass only works when you trust it. When you find yourself surrounded by disruptive activities, I encourage you to call on your values and find direction in them.

Remember, however, a compass only shows you the way; it is not a GPS that will tell you where to turn. As important as calling on your values is trusting yourself to apply them. To help you do that, I offer some questions for you and your board to consider before the inevitable big change brings disruption to the forefront. Like your values, there are no right or wrong answers here. You no doubt will answer differently than others, but, if you are true to your core values, your answers are indeed correct.

  • What values drive your decisions? Can you articulate them in writing?
  • Over time, as community and societal values change, has the foundation morphed, or are your values still appropriate? Is there an “obligation” for values to be reflective of the current world, albeit influenced by the foundation’s roots?
  • As an individual board member or part of a family, do you find your own values out of sync with the foundation? Does that present a moral dilemma for you? Sleepless nights? How have you addressed—or should you address—the situation?
  • Families grow and change. New generations may have different ideas or values, and marriages can expedite the influence of points of view. Does that/has that shifted values, and how has the foundation managed the change and possible conflict?
  • If values represent the heart, how are they balanced with the actions of the head and the reality of limited funds?

Henry Berman

Henry Berman became Exponent Philanthropy’s CEO in 2011, previously serving as acting CEO, board member, and committee member. Through his experience as a foundation co-trustee and Exponent Philanthropy member since 2003, he brings a firsthand understanding of the needs of members to his role.


  1. At PEAK Grantmaking, we couldn’t agree more with Henry’s assessment of the importance of values as a leading factor in the success of grantmakers. The questions he poses are key to identifying, leaning into, and living your values as a funder.

    And, I’d add one more question to Henry’s list—

    • Is HOW you’re making your grants (e.g., application and reporting requirements, response time, communication, etc.) consistent with your values?

    Practices are the most visible and concrete manifestation of a funder’s values for most grantseekers. When values and practices are out of sync, funders unnecessarily tax their own resources, the nonprofits they serve, and the goodwill of their supporters. Our research shows that a growing number of grantmaking organizations are actively considering how they can better “walk the talk” by aligning values and practices. (More on PEAK Grantmaking’s Walk the Talk series here: https://www.peakgrantmaking.org/walkthetalk)

  2. Excellent essay, Henry! Made me think: Some funders may indeed respond quickly to disruptions and recent events, and veer from their core values. In a different scenario, other funders may be clear on their core values, but when a disruption happens in their community or country, they may not shift their grantmaking and actions to be in continued alignment with those values. The landscape changed, and they find they are out of synch with what they hold dear. It’s very easy to keep doing what one is doing.

    Also: Michelle Greanias makes a terrific point about aligning one’s funding practices with one’s values. A good way to begin that process is to survey your grantees on how much time it takes to complete your application and grant reports. The results can guide your streamlining and efforts to build relationships.

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