An old friend of Robert Frost’s was driving him home on a moonlit August night, with huge stars in the sky. The friend mused, ‘On a night like this, I keep thinking that life is so short, and there is so little time.’ Frost put a hand on his arm and said, ‘It’s the other way around, you know. There is so much time. More than anyone could ever need.’

I love this recounting by writer Jay Parini because it so beautifully captures the subtle but incredibly powerful shift from a scarcity worldview to an abundance worldview. As Robert Frost so eloquently put it, whether we see a lack of something, or more than enough of it, is simply a choice.

The same is true in the world of philanthropy. As a consultant, I spend a lot of time helping social change leaders identify and then overcome the scarcity thinking that holds back their ability to create social change. What do I mean by “scarcity thinking”? It’s a fundamental belief that there isn’t enough — enough money, enough leaders, enough organizations, enough power, enough influence — to achieve your social change goals.

Scarcity thinking pervades nonprofits, but also (shockingly) philanthropy. It may seem like a contradiction — someone who has large sums of money at their disposal can’t possibly be stuck in a scarcity mindset, can they? But it happens all the time.

In my view, scarcity thinking is the biggest impediment to the healthier, more equitable world we all want to see. But that world is actually just within our grasp, if we are brave enough (as poet Amanda Gorman reminded us recently) to think and be radically different.

No matter how relieved you may have been on January 20 when a new presidential administration took office, the brutal fact is that solving the mounting challenges our country faces will take much more than new political leaders. In fact, it will require every single one of us to recognize our own power and stand up to use that power to create something different.

Because the problem is not that effective philanthropists like you don’t know how philanthropy must change. The path is quite clear (and has been laid out quite frequently here on the CEP blog and many other sites, journals, and webinars). Philanthropy needs much more unrestricted funding, much higher payout levels, greater investment in BIPOC leaders, much more mission-related investing — I need not list every necessary change.

There are some philanthropic leaders who are already leading the charge (see examples here and here). But the majority of philanthropic dollars still move largely as they always have because scarcity thinking holds most funders — program officers, CEOs, and board members — back from leading true change.

Here’s how scarcity thinking plays out in these cases. Funders believe:

  • I don’t have enough money to fund programs AND infrastructure.
  • I don’t have enough influence to convince my board to implement mission investing.
  • I don’t have enough faith in the future to pay out more than 5 percent per year.
  • I don’t have enough confidence to invest in new, unknown leaders.
  • I don’t have enough power to call B.S. when I see it.

But here’s the thing. If you want to help lead the great sea change that will be required of philanthropy as we emerge from this pandemic, you have to first believe that you can.

In fact, that very thing — the rising up of previously powerless individuals within the many organizations that make up our philanthropic sector — is what will create the sea change. Change always starts with the individual, so if you feel a burning desire for your organization to fund differently, stop waiting for permission to take action.

You may believe that you, as an individual, have a scarcity of power to create change — but it’s actually the other way around, you know. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the most unlikely people can become true leaders, while those with big leadership titles can fail miserably. No matter your role in philanthropy, you can lead others (including those with the big titles) to change.

Here’s how to move beyond scarcity thinking to lead philanthropic change:

  • Move From Complaining to Action
  • Articulate the Change You Want
  • Gather Allies

Read the full article about changing philanthropy by Nell Edgington at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.