A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Is Change Calling You in Life, Love, or Philanthropy?

How do we make the biggest decisions in life? How do we decide to get married? Have a child? Begin a new career? Start a business? How do organizations such as foundations transform themselves?

Sometimes change comes from deliberate planning—a weighing of pros and cons, mapping out scenarios, looking at the different considerations (financial, practical, emotional). But when it comes to big, transformative change, these strategies are not useful, according to recent research in decision science. They depend on current options, what we know now. They’re bound within the status quo.

What if we feel pulled toward something, but don’t know exactly why, or what it is? What if we don’t know a clear path ahead? What if the unknown beckons, and we don’t know enough, or can’t know enough, to make a careful assessment?

Agnes Callard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, whose work is profiled in a recent New Yorker essay by Joshua Rothman, says that we “aspire” to self-transformation by trying on the values that we hope one day to possess. In other words, when we have hunches or intuitions about a new role or life, instead of ignoring or dismissing the feeling, we venture out of our comfort zone a little bit and act on it in small ways.

We test it out.

By “trying things on,” we learn and discover, and gradually work our way into transformation.

My friend Lena made a dramatic career shift. But she didn’t set out to do so. What Lena felt was a sense of restlessness, and an openness to change. Lena was a web designer. On weekends, she tried out a new hobby, which awakened an appreciation for the natural world. She began reading, and volunteering at nature centers. She took evening classes at a community college in botany and other fields of natural science. As a mid-career professional, being a student again was a new experience. In classes, students took notes on laptop computers, while Lena penned hers in black Moleskin note books. Lena loved the material, aced her classes, and over a couple years realized she wanted to begin a new career—in a totally different field. She had had a hunch this new field might align with her passions and talents, but by volunteering and taking classes, she tested out the hunch, developed knowledge and experience, and refined her emerging path.

In this active, engaged way, Lena gradually discovered something in herself she didn’t know before, and worked her way into a new and more satisfying career.

In a similar way, Anne, a foundation founder, was restless and open to change. Anne’s family had supported many different causes in the past, but now, with her own foundation, she wanted to make focused impact. Anne had a big goal in mind—to help make quality education and health services more accessible to low-income families in her state. But she didn’t know what that would take, or how to get there. Her foundation had $8 million in assets and one staff person.

Anne tried different ways to get her arms around the issue—she hired a consultant with knowledge of early childhood, and began making grants to providers. She realized how complex the field is, and how difficult it is to make wide-scale change. Though frustrated, she developed a clearer vision of what it would take to achieve her goal.

Then Anne and her sons decided to convene their grantees and a couple public officials who worked on children and youth issues. The convening was a game changer—it highlighted avenues for action, illuminated what sectors of early childhood were not in the room, and confirmed something Anne had begun to realize: that no one else in the state was focusing on babies.

The foundation began getting involved in advocacy and policy. Its staff person served on city and state commissions; Anne herself testified before a legislative committee on the importance of serving babies and mothers. The foundation joined a state funders’ coalition on early childhood, and through years of effort succeeded in catalyzing millions more dollars for home visits and early education and care for families in need.

At the beginning of this journey, Anne had a passion and a vision to catalyze change, but she didn’t know how. It was only by trying different things, and developing knowledge of the landscape, that she discovered what was needed. Without setting out to, Anne became an advocate for children, rather than a grantmaker. Her advocacy is what really transformed the status quo, and, in the process, transformed Anne as a funder.

Aspiration is intuitive, inchoate. As Agnes Callard points out, we may be unable to describe why we are trying something new, why we feel pulled in a new direction. Rothman writes,

If we couldn’t aspire to changes that we struggle to describe, we’d be trapped within the ideas that we already have. Our inability to explain our reasons is a measure of how far we wish to travel. It’s only after an aspirant has reached her destination, Callard writes, that she will say, ‘This was why.’

When you feel pulled or called toward something, don’t shut yourself down. Take that feeling seriously. Aspire. It’s natural to not know exactly what it is, or why you feel this way. And you may not know the path. But allow yourself to act on it.

Try things on.

Then, follow where it leads.

Thinking of trying out a new role or strategy in your philanthropy? To learn more about convening, advocacy, and other ways to make change, see Exponent Philanthropy’s publication Twenty Ways to Make a Difference, and come to the workshop of the same name at our CONNECT Conference, October 2–4 in St. Louis.

Senior 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. 

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