What Donors Want – Exploring politics and philanthropy with David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation


Rachel Stephenson Sheff


Podcast listeners – a new episode of What Donors Want is out! We had the honour of speaking with David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation.

If you haven’t tuned in, What Donors Want is a podcast by I.G. Advisors, which offers a fresh, dynamic (and slightly irreverent) view into major gifts fundraising and philanthropy from the donor’s perspective. We are proud to have Alliance magazine as our Media Partner, and will be sharing insights on this platform.

The Obama Foundation, of course, needs no introduction. It’s the philanthropic legacy of former US President and former First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama – and its mission is to inspire, empower and connect people to change their world. Our guest, CEO David Simas, has had a remarkable career – notably, he joined the Obama Administration in 2009 as Deputy Assistant to the President, and during the Administration’s second term served as Assistant to the President, and Director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.

As soon as we connected with David, it was clear he was a brilliant leader and storyteller. We were enraptured by his journey, career and, naturally, his connection to the Obama family. He describes being called into the Oval Office by Barack, and being asked to lead the Foundation. The thrill and humility of this responsibility, and their shared passion for cultivating the next generation of civic leaders.

It wasn’t lost on us that we spoke with David during an extremely pertinent time – our interview was one week after the 2020 US Presidential Election, and as I write this, Joe Biden’s inauguration is approaching next week. Democracy, the integrity of political systems, and the responsibility of governments are centre stage in the global zeitgeist. It was the perfect moment to explore the fascinating relationship between politics and philanthropy, and our collective civic duties.

When asked how working in philanthropy differs from working in politics, David stressed the importance of incentives: `In politics, the incentives are structured around winning or losing an election. In philanthropy, the incentives are fundamentally different – it’s much more open to a win-win dynamic.` The constant need to secure re-election is an unavoidable reality of public office, and David’s right that this can be different in philanthropy – depending on where you sit.

While an ‘I win/you lose’ mindset won’t get you very far in philanthropy, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the dynamic of political campaigning, and the dynamic of philanthropic fundraising. Political candidates leveraging their personal stories and values to connect with voters. Taking strong stances on aligned issues, and diplomatically dancing around others. Non-profits telling impact stories to draw in donors without being too ‘controversial’. Always trying to keep donors engaged, and balancing this with the interests of the communities they’re trying to stand in solidarity with. With the right donors, this balance is easy (and unrestricted, and multi-year), but that’s not always the case.

As we discuss on the show, philanthropy is only as strong as the people who participate in it, and the way resources are distributed is just as important as the causes resources are distributed to. When power remains exclusively in the hands of donors, the incentives between public office and public sector aren’t always so different, but when that `win-win` dynamic is achieved – that is philanthropy magic.

Speaking with David was an immense honour, and one of the most inspiring conversations we’ve had on the podcast. You can hear the entire conversation between me, Carlos Miranda and David Simas by subscribing to What Donors Want. And stay tuned for our next episode coming soon.

What Donors Want is a podcast by I.G. Advisors, and available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher & SoundCloud. Season 3 is officially sponsored by Segal Family Foundation and Alliance magazine is our Media Partner.

Tagged in: Funding practice

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