Change the world? Acting with greater humility may be best!
April 8th, 2009William Schambra, director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, wrote a good article in this week's edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled, "It's Time for Humble Philanthopy" and I found myself agreeing with much of what he wrote. (If the link to the article does not work and you would like to read the article, please email me email@example.com. Thank you.)
I try to read as much as I can regarding philanthropy, trends, foundations, etc - you name it, I'm likely reading it! I have been thinking for the past few months that while it is important to have lofty goals, a big vision, and hope for better times, that philanthropy cannot tackle major societal problems alone. And even with partners with government, other foundations, donors, community leaders - this is a daunting task.
I had a meeting with a well-meaning gentleman several years ago who worked for a major corporation in the capacity of directing community relations. He had a big dream to eliminate poverty in West Michigan. I sure would like to do that too and I tried a bit gently at the start of the conversation to say perhaps we need to scale this down a bit so we can enjoy small successes along the way with many partners. Well - he wasn't listening and for those who know me, you know that this was a departure as I am usually the "let's ramp this up" promoter! Trying to gather steam and support around his vision ultimately led to his total frustration as no one could really put their arms around the issue or parts of it to effectively address it.
The major international private foundations likewise are trying to tackle huge societal issues and many times are frustrated by their efforts - even with using the most sophisticated measurement tools - which are still in their infancy stage of development.
What Mr. Schambra was emphasizing was the need for foundations to cool their heels a bit on the lofty nature of their attempts to address major societal problems. Certainly to address them but to not go beyond their real ability and capacity attempting to totally eliminate, eradicate or alleviate the problem. To quote from the article: "Events over the past year should have taught philanthropy that even the most lavishly supported and best intentioned efforts to purchase leverage outside its own sphere are not enough to guide or deflect the powerful forces and trends that dominate politics and markets . . . We may now be able to reconsider the basics of philanthropy, to remind ourselves that, after all is said and done, what foundations do best . . . is to simply make grants to worthwhile nonprofit organizations. This may not be as glitzy and sophisticated as attempting to harness and ride whirlwind social forces like master of the universe. But right now, nothing could be more important."
While I do believe even the smallest of foundations do more than "simply make grants", it is the humility message that resonated with me. Grandiosity doesn't cut it when we are all trying to assure a brighter future for our communities and our country.