My Observations About Good Deeds Done Well - Exponent Philanthropy
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My Observations About Good Deeds Done Well

I spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital last fall. I wasn’t the patient, although in countless hours beside my wife’s bedside, I had considerable time to think, observe, and learn. Thankfully, with much credit to her doctors and medical team, all signs are now positive.

What became evident to me early in our ordeal is the incredible parallel between philanthropy and the delivery of medical care. Doctors, nurses, and support staff of all types were regular visitors to my wife’s bedside. Some came with urgency, whereas others had the luxury of accommodating her, as when the physical therapist offered to return later upon arriving to find my wife sleeping. Each brought a desire to help her improve, just as we each in philanthropy share a desire to bring about change or sustain progress.

Whereas many aspects of our hospital stays were the same, the variations provided a window into how people deliver care under varying circumstances. Over time I watched as different nurses brought an important daily injection. Most came in with a smile and a reminder of the medical purpose. They would engage in conversation and offer a choice of arm or leg for receiving the shot. Others (only a few, thankfully) came in, barely said a word, and, in a matter-of-fact manner, administered the injection before leaving. The injection’s effect on the body was the same, yet its impact on the mind was considerably different.

I witnessed how those brief conversations, explanations, and respect for the patient made a huge difference. This got me thinking about grantmaking. We can deliver a grant check in the mail with a letter and paperwork to return. Or we can precede that letter with a phone call or visit, a conversation about what we hope the grant will accomplish, and words of support. I submit to you there is a difference, and we funders, as caregivers, have a responsibility to deliver that care warmly and with compassion. And it is possible to do.

The Fremont Area Community Foundation now delivers all grant decisions in person. What a tremendous example of actively communicating true caring about those who have looked to the foundation for help.

On more than one occasion, I questioned our doctors, just as a nonprofit might question a funder. At one end of the spectrum was the doctor who acted as if I were an imposition, whose body language and brevity barely provided an answer, much less any degree of anxiety reduction on my part. Another doctor was the complete opposite. When I asked a question, she took me over to a computer screen and pulled up x-rays, CT scans, and test results. We talked about changes and trends and progress. Although I’m sure I didn’t truly grasp all the medical information she passed on, her warmth and desire to interact with me honestly gave me confidence and comfort. When you’re working with a nonprofit, which type of player are you? Which do you want to be?

Physician, author, and teacher Dr. Jerome Groopman remarked, “Certainly the primary imperative of a physician is to be skilled in medical science, but if he or she does not probe a patient’s soul, then the doctor’s care is given without caring, and part of the sacred mission of healing is missing.”

I wholeheartedly believe the same is true for funders. Delivering hope and encouragement is part of  our sacred mission to bring about change and improvement in society.

One final note: Last month, we launched the Philanthropy Lessons video series and campaign, produced by Exponent Philanthropy, funded by the Fund for Shared Insight, and released in partnership with The Chronicle of Philanthropy. In each video released now through June, funders and their grantees share lessons learned throughout their careers—words of wisdom they have gained along the way.

Two videos are particularly relevant to the themes here, and I encourage you to watch these and others, be inspired, then share your philanthropy lesson online or on social media using hashtag #MyPhilLesson:



Henry BermanHenry 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. Follow Henry on Twitter @Berman_Henry.


  1. Henry, I truly enjoyed your post. Thanks so much for both your transparency and your insight on how important it is as grantmakers to effectively communicate to your current & potential grantee partners in a thorough way. Your Philanthropy Lessons series is awesome. Congrats to you & your team!

    • Patrick S. DeMoon

      First, Judi and I send all positive thoughts to you and your wife.
      Second, your comparison of health care and philanthropy is right on.
      I’m sorry for the way in which the idea came to you, but yes, we in philanthropy should be communicating with our grantees and show compassion and understanding of what they need in order to help them fulfill their mission.

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