Reflective Practice to Move Your Philanthropy Forward - Exponent Philanthropy
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Reflective Practice to Move Your Philanthropy Forward

I had a hunch: If everyone in a room reflects on their practice, especially the practices they turn to when stymied somewhere between intent and outcome, something good and potentially powerful would result.

By practice, I mean the tools and skills one uses to have difficult conversations, move ideas along, work across the boundaries of different systems, and bring one’s best assets and manage one’s worse behaviors in service of a task.

We all have good and bad ways of reflecting on ourselves, but largely they are invisible to others—sometimes even to ourselves. If my hunch was right, perhaps we could create a space for sharing practices to up everyone’s game.

While I have been intent on discovering philanthropy’s reflective practices with a team of colleagues at The Giving Practice, Exponent Philanthropy had been operating in a yearlong peer learning program for leaders of foundations, the Master Juggler Executive Institute.

When Hanh Le, then Chief Program Officer at Exponent Philanthropy, heard that The Giving Practice was exploring the role of reflective practice as a discipline within philanthropy, she called to see what we might do together.

Could we ask philanthropy practitioners to help us discover reflective practice skills tied to different philanthropic leadership traits?

GEO was game for a session at its National Conference to test the theory, and a mash up of these two inquires took off.

Janis Reischmann, executive director of Hau’oli Mau Loa Foundation, a participant in the Master Juggler Executive Institute, and one of Exponent Philanthropy’s board members agreed to help me run the session.

Cut to the chase: 50 people at GEO agreed to test drive a dilemma of their own against four simple reflective practice tools:

  • Exploring what’s under the water line of complicated events that can’t be seen but must be attended to
  • Using critical incident journaling rather than talking about something that went wrong
  • Choosing images that evoke to explain a situation before using words to describe it
  • Working with an active listener (versus a hallway consultant) to hear out the situation

Next, each of us ranked our leadership traits and shared reflective practice tools in our most well-worn trait. We looked for practice tools that might help us in the trait that we most want to develop. We also parsed reflective practice into what we might do beforehand to prepare ourselves, what we do in the moment when things go awry, and what we do afterward to assess how things went.

Here are some takeaways:

Many people find ways to reflect “when there’s no time”:

  • Build in the practice of quiet, “deep work” time (e.g., 2 hours/day).
  • Drive home without the radio to review the day.
  • Go for a run.
  • Intentionally make space before or after a meeting for unplanned conversation.

There were examples of creative journaling:

  • I keep a “wonder log” of questions and curiosities: “I wonder if…”
  • Before-action: I prep by clarifying my intentions to myself and reminding others.
  • After-action: Pay attention to how/when things are progressing in ways that are different than I imagined and invite input to understand and course-correct.

Techniques were offered for reflective practice tied to challenging situations:

  • In difficult conversations, openly recognize the situation is difficult; pause to give it space; name the difficulty; invite participants to reflect on feelings, ideas, and solutions; and collectively discuss the group reflections.
  • GRACE: Gather my attention, Reflect on my intention, Attune to myself and others, Consider what truly will be of service, Engage and then End
  • Notice when I’m triggered or sure I’m right and then intentionally pause and let others fully express themselves while I listen.

Janis and I thought you might be interested in trying these explorations inside your foundation.

Would you like to learn more about Philanthropy’s Reflective Practice? We have a website.

I would also love to hear more about your reflective practice at

Jan JaffeJan Jaffe spent 30 years at the Ford Foundation with a wide range of assignments: making program related investments, running a planning and learning unit for the Program Division, and creating GrantCraft—a peer exchange of philanthropic tools and skills for supporting social change. A senior partner for The Giving Practice, Jan’s consulting work focuses on strategic planning, onboarding and professional development program design, and facilitating collaborative groups. In addition, Jan does coaching with foundation executives and staff.


  1. Laura Henze Russell

    Excellent piece on an excellent practice. Love the “below the water line” analogy. You continue to be an inspiration and a catalyst for good!

  2. Marian Mulkey

    Nice column. Really appreciate the GRACE mnemonic. If only more of us, in more situations, could resist the temptation to begin at “Engage!”.

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