The problems philanthropy seeks to remedy are big, messy, and complicated. Yet far too often, we try to combat them with simple responses. Faced with child hunger, we focus on giving children food; but we don’t connect that work to creating a national minimum wage, even though the vast majority of food-insecure children in the United States have working parents. We try to fix homelessness without embracing foster-care reform, despite knowing that half of Americans experiencing homelessness spent time in the foster-care system. We create initiatives to alleviate the climate crisis by promoting recycling and beach clean-ups, without building in advocacy for substantive policy changes that stop pollution at its source.
This partly stems from philanthropy’s structural challenges. Foundations can only fund initiatives that have nonprofit partners capable of enacting them. And, when it comes to measuring impact, it’s far easier to focus on outputs (such as the number of bags of garbage collected from a polluted river) than on systems change (such as a law that would prohibit corporations from dumping garbage in the water supply).
But some of our reliance on simple solutions in the face of complicated issues is a by-product of how foundations are set up in the first place. We segment them not only on the basis of geography and mission, but also on the basis of whom we seek to serve. When foundations explain what they do, the answer is usually, “We fund women’s issues” or “We’re focused on scholarships for at-risk kids.” Seldom is the response, “We look for creative and expansive ways to make the world a better place.”
At The Eisner Foundation, we decided to change that. We decided to work in a simultaneously more expansive and interconnected way, and we feel our efforts have dramatically increased our impact.
Below are four lessons based on our experience for funders and philanthropists interested in expanding their mission.
- Make new connections.
- Study. Then study some more.
- Rethink fundamentals.
- Consider changing grant sizes.
Read the full article about interconnected solutions by Trent Stamp and Cathy Choi at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
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