A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Pioneering a Unique Kind of Changemaking

When philanthropists are at work—even if meeting with nonprofits, bringing together people in the community, or speaking out on important issues—it is their potential to bestow grants that draws our attention. Everything philanthropists do, whether or not it involves the transfer of dollars, is called grantmaking.

In a society where money consumes our attention, several dozen small-staffed foundations have been quietly experimenting with a kind of philanthropy that counts money as only one of several assets put to use—and sometimes the least important. These funders are achieving impact way beyond the size of their assets, staff, and boards.

Exponent Philanthropy believes these foundations are creating and refining, without fanfare, a kind of philanthropy that is influencing the practice of making social impact and change. These funders are setting trends—under the radar. I want to describe for you their unique, dynamic work, and the uncommon mindset of their leaders.

Very Little to Do With Making Grants

What first caught my attention was the outsized impact these small-staffed foundations were achieving in their towns, cities, and states. Then, as I interviewed their leaders, I realized that much or most of their time had nothing to do with making grants.

What are these catalytic funders achieving?

  • A small family foundation in California is building a network to engage parents in decision making about the public school system’s budget. The network is making the school system more accountable to the needs of students and families—in part by getting parents elected to the school board.
  • A small public foundation in Kansas spearheaded a campaign to pass a state smoking ban, long supported by the public but blocked by powerful interests. The foundation commissioned a public poll documenting citizen support and developed innovative ways to deliver the results to legislators.
  • A group of foundations in Texas—including several small-staffed foundations—worked together to advocate the state legislature to restore $4 billion in cuts to public education. The coalition commissioned research to document specific impacts of the proposed $5.4 billion in cuts; got the results into the hands of influential individuals and groups; engaged more than 80 foundations throughout the state; and published a report specially for state legislators, framing the impact from the perspective of parents.

Letting the Work and Issue Guide You

I believe two qualities set these philanthropists apart: a willingness to let the work guide you, and the courage to venture where the path leads—wherever it goes.

Philanthropists who allow the work to guide them make powerful assumptions from the start. They assume that their knowledge is limited, that knowledge is critical to impact and change, and that the essential knowledge is out in the community. They seek out conversations with nonprofit leaders and staff, business leaders, academic researchers, government agency staff, journalists, legislators, parents, teachers, and citizens. They are curious and hungry to learn, and they choose actions based on the knowledge gained.

Entrepreneurial leaders also recognize, through exceptional curiosity and a drive to listen and learn, that their issues are complex, and that many organizations and individuals play a role. They often come to understand that:

  • Groups working on an issue often work in isolation.
  • Sometimes politics and turf issues further divide potential collaborators.
  • Key knowledge, data, and decision-making power are diffused among these myriad groups (even in small communities).
  • Perhaps most important, the sobering truth is that often no one else is in a position to look across all the players and understand what could be accomplished if different groups shared information and worked together.

This is where courage comes into play. These catalytic funders are stepping up to play the needed roles of convenor, unifier, and connector. They are doing whatever it takes to make things happen—whether it is bringing together working groups, commissioning research, raising awareness, funding advocacy, meeting with legislators, or mobilizing organizations and citizens.

The Art of Making Things Happen

These dynamic funders are also deeply embedded in the work, the issue, and the community.

Emily Tow Jackson of the The Tow Foundation and Martha Toll of Butler Family Fund sometimes attend meetings on issues of importance to their foundations as citizens, not as grantmakers. Being present and participating in public meetings helps them stay informed, build their foundations’ knowledge, and be available to opportunities.

This brings us to a quality of changemaking foundations that is more art than craft. I am still learning about and understanding this quality. So far, I can describe it as the extraordinary ability to be so engaged, grounded, available, and expertly informed that you can connect people at just the right moment, propose an idea to the right person at the perfect time, and seize opportunities. Jackson and Toll call this “making things happen.” Other terms they use include “taking initiative,” “empowering,” “making things move,” and “directing resources to key places at the right moment.”

Through a journey of listening, learning, passion, engagement, and risk-taking, these philanthropists are creating an entirely different kind of changemaking. They are not following anyone’s playbook or formula, but are instead letting the work and opportunities guide them.

Their success shows us that money is only the beginning.

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.

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