Aristotle once said of introspection: ‘knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.’ In a time when the philanthropic sector is in the midst of soul-searching about its effectiveness and future, the Council on Foundations’ Leading Together conference provided ample opportunity for introspection. As a first time participant at the conference, and a somewhat recent entrant to the world of philanthropy, I appreciated the opportunity to be part of forging a better path ahead.
Through its ‘Philanthropic Practice’ program track, participants got the opportunity to address the criticisms and challenges that philanthropy faces today, and to come up with action-oriented solutions. Some questions were also left unresolved, as can be expected from two-day conference with lots to discuss. Importantly, I appreciated that the conference signaled a culture shift in building a better movement with a commitment to more impactful grantmaking, building a learning sector, and ensuring the future of philanthropy in light of the current political climate.
Leading systemic change for more impactful grantmaking
Fittingly, one of the first sessions of the conference was on systemic change. It was a bold move, but no further conversation could have happened without first unpacking what it means to enact systemic change as grantmakers. Some of the suggestions were doable: provide general operating support grants, start with a small number of anchor donors who are on board with the long-term game, and foster and nurture leadership in the space. However, panelists also identified the lack of patience in the philanthropic sector, which is constantly looking for nimbleness, flexibility, and innovation, and warned that funders should not expect headline-grabbing impact numbers from their grantees. Systemic change takes time!
Building a transparent learning sector
In parallel with the conversation about building a better sector, is the need to build a more transparent, accountable sector, one that promotes shared learning among funders. As part of increasing accountability, one of the divisions of the Gates Foundation double-blinded its recent application process by checking conflict of interest among reviewers, and by changing the name of the applicant. As a result, the Foundation chose more first-time grantees than in previous years.
The role of government in philanthropy
Throughout the conference, several panelists and speakers referred to the role of government as a peripheral entity, one that philanthropy was built to operate around, and not in collaboration with. However, as I thought one session aptly entitled ‘What’s up in Washington?’ made abundantly clear, philanthropy cannot operate in a silo. The sector’s leaders, trends, financials, and priorities often linked to the political climate, especially in the coming months when philanthropy is going to receive some heightened attention with potential changes to deductions for charitable giving.
While the conference made strides toward introspection and equipping attendees to be change agents within our organizations and communities, there is a lot more work ahead to improve philanthropic practices and build a better sector.
Aastha Mehta is Associate Director of Donor Services and Special Projects at NEO Philanthropy