The Importance of a Funder’s Humility - Exponent Philanthropy
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The Importance of a Funder’s Humility

Each quarter, I write to our member donors to pass along insights I gather in my dual role as Exponent Philanthropy member and CEO, and to provide a special window onto our activities. My most recent communication—sent last month—sparked many positive notes in return, from donors who found it helpful personally and in working with their boards. I’m pleased to share it here with our broader community.

I was walking along Rhode Island Avenue in Washington, DC earlier this month, home to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and one stop on Pope Francis’ U.S. visit. The street was abuzz with painters, sidewalk washers, cleaning crews, and sign installers—everyone focused on primping and polishing. At first blush, all seemed pretty normal for a visit of this magnitude.

And then I thought about the visitor. From what I’ve read, Pope Francis is a humble man with a heart for the downtrodden and less fortunate. I suspect that, if someone told him the decision was not to paint the building, and instead feed the hungry, he would agree wholeheartedly.

As a funder myself, my walk made me wonder if, perhaps at times, we lose sight of what is important in our philanthropy. Do we spend too much time thinking about ourselves and our preferences? Do we set programs or policies because they suit us—without knowing whether they suit our grantees? Do we spend too little time getting to know what our partners need to thrive?

To what extent did those in Washington consider what the Pope may have truly wanted?

In past emails, I’ve shared with you that we are working on a series of videos to capture funders’ lessons learned, generously supported by the Fund for Shared Insight. As I spoke with dozens of Exponent Philanthropy members and their grantees during our video production this summer, one theme emerged loud and clear: the importance of a funder’s humility.

Humility arose in different forms: admitting mistakes, respecting grantees’ expertise, and acknowledging the power dynamics in philanthropy. Fr. David Kelly, executive director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago, described humility in this way: valuing others so much that you are willing to lift up their stories—the stories of those you are trying to help—and let their stories, not yours, shine.

I’ve been fortunate to be a foundation trustee for more than a dozen years. I was blessed to know the donor and learn much about giving from her. Each year on her birthday or holidays, her home would be filled with gifts of flowers and plants. Everyone knew she was an avid gardener and horticulturist in her younger days. And every year she would look at all those ambassadors of the plant world, shake her head, and softly say, “Isn’t there a child who needs glasses? Isn’t there a child who needs shoes?” Few had thought to ask, or consider, what she truly wanted and valued.

I’m not at all suggesting that we should fail to celebrate our work or invest in our organizations or ourselves; indeed, those choices make our philanthropy strong and inspire others. While capturing comments on video, many members talked about the importance of investing in their own lifelong learning. Rather, I’m reflecting aloud on the marvelous opportunity we have as funders and the challenge for each of us to accept that mantel with humility, which demands that we lift up our grantees and make it our priority to know—and serve—them well.

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. Your article reminds us why we are in the world of philanthropy. It takes us back to the beginning before we were concerned about where to stay, what to eat and what trip we could plan around a meeting. It is a profound lesson and I thank you.

  2. Spend more time need-working (not me-working) by seeking first to understand. Great insight.

  3. Sheri Ranis

    So grateful for your thoughtful message!

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