Is Playing It Cool Holding Us Back in Philanthropy? - Exponent Philanthropy
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Is Playing It Cool Holding Us Back in Philanthropy?

We have all heard the warning: In philanthropy, following the heart will lead you astray.

Hunger, homelessness, children who lack opportunity, disasters, pollution, forsaken animals—these touch us deeply. And we give to organizations that have served us—our schools and colleges; hospitals that cared for us; arts groups that enriched our lives. But before long, our dollars and attention get used up. Year after year we give, and the needs don’t seem to go away; some only get bigger.

The prevailing advice in philanthropy is to use our intellect to focus on the most important problems, educate yourself on the best approaches, and find nonprofits that truly make impact. Demand data to show proof of effectiveness.

The message to donors: Be smart, tough, discerning. You raised families and sent children into the world; you built successful businesses. Don’t check your intellect and savvy at the door when you do philanthropy; follow through and be strategic.

I could not agree more.

The counsel to do smarter, more educated giving is rock-solid. But are we also limiting ourselves?

By banning passion, by burying the heart, we may be undermining our ability to transform giving into changemaking. The issues and challenges we seek to address are so complex, so enormous, that money alone won’t solve them.

For over a decade, I have chronicled the work of dozens of small-staffed funders who have achieved catalytic impact. Their experience affirms the essential role of knowledge, data, and discernment in making impact. Going deep to learn one issue thoroughly, in fact, is a hallmark of these small, focused foundations. Deep knowledge empowers them to make change.

But many of these funders talk about something else at work: a white-hot passion or sense of moral outrage at the core of their giving. What drove them to go deep and learn everything they could was a feeling that something was profoundly wrong; a recognition that the status quo had to be changed. Passion drove them to use their unique perspective and access as funders to go out into the community, and engage knowledgeable people from all sectors, to listen and learn. Through this journey, they discerned previously undiscovered opportunities to break barriers and move issues forward.

Listening deeply takes great attention, a setting aside of one’s own agenda to put oneself in the shoes of another. It is hard work, requiring time, presence, and empathy. For funders who listen really carefully, I think the work is an act of love.

As they listen, they recognize that a few grants and the labors of a handful of nonprofits cannot advance the kind of large-scale change they seek. They realize that persuading and mobilizing others to get involved has to be part of their work—persuading other funders, businesses, government agencies, media people, the public. Their passion prepares them well for this role–it makes them authentic advocates and champions.

Passion does something else—it empowers persistence. Philanthropists I interview say that tenacity is essential to making change, because the work of changing attitudes, public awareness, and public policy often takes years. A deep commitment to an issue allows funders to weather setbacks, criticism, and the tedium of a long road.

We tend to think of passion as volatile, deeply personal, untethered. The passion of catalytic funders is disciplined, focused, guided by profound learning and experience. It manifests itself in deep curiosity and excitement in possibility. Sometimes it is a slow, steady, burning desire for change and justice.

Is cool detachment serving us well in philanthropy?

Sometimes I feel that the measured actions of private giving are no match for our immense challenges: economic hardship, widening inequality, declining opportunity for millions, racial tension and discrimination, the threats of a rapidly changing climate. Our focus on outcomes alone is not enough; neither is money. Giving has remained stagnant for decades (as a percentage of our GDP). And government support for nonprofits—including many human service agencies—is being cut.

Our challenges call us to contribute a greater part of ourselves. And the key to unlocking more of ourselves is to connect emotionally with urgent issues. Showing us a path are smart, passionate, agile funders who are catalyzing change on difficult issues. I find inspiration in the Tow Foundation in Connecticut catalyzing juvenile justice reform; the Sheltering Arms Foundation in Minnesota and the Colina Foundation in Michigan advocating for wider access to quality early education; the Leightman Maxey Foundation in Oregon nurturing collaboration on nutrition issues by convening agencies from all sectors; the Rogers Family Foundation in California and a coalition of Texas funders (TEGAC) organizing stakeholders to strengthen public education and spark innovation in schools; and the Sunflower Foundation in Kansas and the VNA Foundation in Illinois building networks to improve access to healthcare for all citizens.

By venturing into our communities to listen, by seeing and touching issues with our own eyes, and by putting ourselves in real relation to other human beings, we will experience deeper connection, and deeper feeling. And if we allow ourselves to feel sadness, frustration, anger, and moral outrage, we will summon and contribute our creativity, our commitment, our labor, and perhaps most powerfully—our voice and rallying cry—to our chosen cause.

We will find that intellectual rigor, and a fiery sense of outrage and commitment, combine powerfully to drive change.

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.


  1. […] Is Playing It Cool Holding Us Back in Philanthropy? In following the wise counsel to do smarter grantmaking, are we also limiting ourselves? […]

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