Philanthropy is changing. Compounding global crises have forced many funders to toss aside standard operating procedures and rething not only how philanthropy should respond in a crisis but also how to more urgently and effectively tackle the longstanding challenges and inequities many were already working to address. What we hope to accomplish, the timeline on which to do so, who is at the table, how we listen and learn, and what it means to maximize impact are all continuing to be rethought and reworked at a much greater scale than we have seen before in our field.
As TPI engages with partners and clients to re-examine giving norms and expectations, we find ourselves coming back to five high-level yet personal questions that prompt some of the most useful reflections to guide action. Whether you are an institutional funder, donor, or board member, we hope you find these questions useful as well for starting conversations and informing change.
1. What do you feel is the most important role your philanthropy has played in uncertain times?
Whether your philanthropic strategies stayed steady or changed meaningfully in 2020, you likely found certain roles and responses fell more authentically into place. Did you provide critical ongoing support to nonprofits to fill growing gaps, equip them to shift programming models, or take on new roles? Did you shift your strategy in full or part to meet emerging needs in the community? Did you bolster collaborative efforts to leverage others' expertise and infrastructure? Did you lean into work on racial equity, social justice, and democracy when these issues overshadowed nearly every other? Take time to reflect on what roles you have played and learned from as a funder over the course of the last year, and those you have observed by others, and consider how you may keep moving up the TPI Philanthropic Curve to become even more connected, dexterous, and effective.
2. How did the experiences of this past year change your relationships with grantee partners?
You may have found, as did many funders, that 2020 reinforced the human connections in our work, allowing us to break through processes and embrace the personal. Do you feel you were able to support your nonprofit partners in their efforts to respond nimbly to the needs of those they serve? Is there a stronger relationship of trust in both directions now that you have partnered through crisis, learned from their leadership and expertise, and perhaps increased candor, trust, and flexibility amidst uncertainty? How could you build on this experience to deepen these and other relationships going forward, and be more authentic and human in your work?
3. How might your philanthropic strategies shift as a result of what we’ve collectively learned?
The events of the past year reinforce that we can never do philanthropy in a vacuum. Many funders actively work to avoid this and increasingly see their philanthropy as one small piece in a complex puzzle. Given what’s been laid bare over the last year, you may be considering small or seismic shifts in your philanthropic strategy. Systems change and the role philanthropy can play in addressing root causes is of greater interest to funders: not only getting food to people in emergencies but also figuring out how communities can be food secure and resilient far into the future; not only making sure people receive COVID-19 care and vaccinations but also ensuring ongoing access to basic healthcare in communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to historical inequities. Many funders are wading for the first time into strategies to strengthen democracy, looking hard at civic education, voting access, election integrity, media and journalism, and ways to overcome polarization. More and more funders are seeing how climate change impacts all issues and communities they care about and are funding climate mitigation and resilience work locally and globally for the first time. Throughout the unravelling chaos of the last year, where have you found opportunities for your philanthropy to mitigate future crises and rebuild in ways that are more equitable and resilient? This kind of long-term lens is a critical part of a funding portfolio.
4. What are some risks – no matter how big or small – you’re willing to take in 2021?
Sometimes living through a crisis increases appetite for risk, in a positive way. Philanthropy has proven that it – we – can play a powerful role as society’s risk capital. Philanthropy can be uniquely creative, innovative, and daring. So, after considering your giving’s potential for impact both short-term and long-term, what are the opportunities you find yourself considering, yet hesitating about, because there is risk involved? If you have an opportunity to go big on a high-potential initiative, or invest meaningfully in a new and unproven leader, or commit to an effort for multiple years to provide the stability needed to plan and build capacity for the long-term, what unprecedented gains might be achieved? How can you ensure your riskier investments generate maximum learning for partners and the field, so that there is impact and growth even amidst the potential for “failure”? After all that we have faced this year, has there been a better time to take a leap? Indeed, that may be philanthropy’s most important job.
5. Imagine it’s December 31st, 2021 and you’re looking back on the roles you’ve played in philanthropy this year. What would you be proud of? What would you regret?
Building on your answers to the prior four questions, what would success look like this year? How can you improve the open lines of communication and candor with grantees and other partners? Are there others who need to be at your table, or are there more tables you need to sit at? How much of your portfolio is working to prevent future crises, including those that will unfold outside of the public eye? These kinds of questions can be useful touchpoints to make sure you have a forward-thinking strategy that reflects the funder you aspire to be. They can also reenergize your sense of purpose.
We hope these five questions help you, as they have helped us and others, pinpoint lessons and actions to weave into your philanthropy in 2021 and beyond. More than anything, we hope that this past year (plus) shows all of us that change can happen far more quickly than we ever knew. The more honest and nimble we can be in our learning, reflection, and action, the more effective we can be as philanthropies in a rapidly changing world.