A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Strengthen Your People Powers

Philanthropy, from the Greek word for “to love humanity,” is inherently a human enterprise.

In this business of helping to solve complicated social problems, we’re bound by the opportunities and challenges of working with other people to do so. It can be emotional work, and it’s work that involves very diverse people who span different generations, politics, cultures, genders, educational and professional backgrounds, and the list goes on.

Whether you’re managing asset growth, tackling generational succession, refining your mission, or simply doing the work at hand to serve your philanthropic goals, being attentive to the human elements can strengthen your philanthropy and make it more pleasurable.

At Exponent Philanthropy, we look at a number of skills and approaches that can help you develop the “people powers” necessary to work sensitively and effectively with those around you.

Some call these topics soft skills, but we think that name downplays their importance in guiding your philanthropy through moments of change as well as its status quo. We call them effectiveness skills instead, and explore topics such as:

  • Adaptive leadership, a set of skills and perspectives that some argue characterize great (agile and ever-learning) leaders
  • Change management—Some say the only constant in our lives—and our philanthropic work—is change. Whether a shifting economic climate, new grantmaking focus, or decision to sunset your philanthropy, being able to manage change thoughtfully can have powerful effects on your work and those involved in it. Keep in mind: Some people adore change, while others detest it.
  • Cultural competency—Funders often invest in organizations serving communities that are very different from the people in their board rooms. How can you bridge this gap with greater sensitivity, awareness, and inclusion? Whether you consider small steps or bold moves in this arena, you’ll put your philanthropy on a path toward more informed investments in the social issues you care about most.
  • Design thinking, an approach to creativity and problem solving that focuses on generating ideas, making selections, and executing solutions via a rapid, iterative approach
  • Emotional intelligence, or the ability to monitor your own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide your thinking and actions
  • Facilitation—Facilitating strong meetings, whether a board meeting or grantee convening or funder collaborative, is a critical philanthropy skill and one that can make your work more enjoyable. Facilitation skills can improve everything from one-on-one conversations to community collaborations, as adept facilitation makes space for new voices, moves groups toward creative solutions, and engages diverse stakeholders in the tasks at hand.
  • Having difficult conversations—or, as some call them, courageous ones; there are helpful techniques to know and use
  • Mentoring—Formal relationships with those further along in the philanthropic journey can support and nurture both emerging and seasoned leaders, and strengthen their organizations as a result. 
  • Network-weaving skills, or the ability to connect, build, and tap into networks for greater shared benefit
  • Power dynamics—Your sensitivity to philanthropy’s inherent power dynamics can nurture more open and productive relationships with grantees. Power dynamics also are at play among board members, between board members and staff, and among collaborators.

It didn’t take long working in this field to realize that the art and craft of good giving is, in fact, hard work. In addition to honing your financial acumen, community know-how, and critical thinking skills, we hope you’ll invest in the key capabilities that can help you work well with the complex and wonderful creatures who surround us in this work: human beings.

JaniceSenior Program Director Janice Simsohn Shaw is our networking maven, always happy to connect members and others for learning and growth. Over her near-decade at the organization, she has played a number of roles. 

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