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Mutual Accountability for Social Change is a monthly series exploring feedback in philanthropy with practical steps for donors. It serves as a primer for the 2022 publication of David Bonbright’s (co-founder and chief executive, Keystone Accountability) book on the emergence of mutuality — working on relationships and not just in them — as a breakthrough approach to philanthropy and social change. The stories and advice are based on a 40-year journey to mutuality craft. Part Ten.
Often used interchangeably, the terms “social change” and “development” refer to an organized effort – through projects, programs, campaigns, and interventions – to address some societal problem and improve people’s lives. They refer to a process to produce intended results. As we invest funds in this process, we often ask “what results come from my funding?” In January, I explained why this is not the primary question you want to ask.
To be an effective funder, the richest vein to mine is found in other part of the equation: The process. To better understand this, let’s explore what is probably the best-known cliché for giving:
Give a man a fish, and he will be hungry again tomorrow. Teach him to catch a fish, and he will be richer all his life.”
Fostering self-reliance is certainly a core tenet of social change effectiveness. In the 1980s, when systems thinking started to take hold in development practice, a caveat was often added: “Unless we overfish or pollute the environment.” This caution compels us to understand the development process within an ecosystem with limits and trade-offs, winners and losers. For so many of our most serious societal challenges, “teaching someone to fish” only makes things worse.
The process of social change is complex, and the task of giving within this process is doubly complex. What is a responsible funder to do?
Ask great questions, the tougher the better. Another way to look at the fish proverb is: When you give me an answer, all I gain is a bit of fact. When you give me a question, I will look for my own answers. The harder the question, the harder I hunt. The harder I hunt, the more I learn.¹
There is a necessary precondition for great questions to trigger a hunt for answers. Great questions will be transformative when they are part of an important, high-quality relationship. Money will get you into the room, but you cannot buy a high-quality relationship. The most important factor all along the value chain of social change is relationship quality.
To be an effective giver, you need to be a good collaborator. To be an effective implementer, you need to earn the trust of those you mean to help.
The good news is that posing and holding questions in a humble and curious way fosters a high-quality relationship. It turns out that the number one, untouchable, best-of-all basis for high-quality relationships in philanthropy and social change is learning together.
Philanthropist Mario Marino locates this idea brilliantly in his biography.
When you have greater resources than you ever imagined and dozens of people (including good friends) asking for donations, it’s natural to take out the charitable checkbook right away. But it’s much better to invest in serious learning before you start investing serious dollars. When Mario started out, he dedicated 18 months to listening and learning, engaging 700 people from all walks of life in conversation. He was new to philanthropy and a “babe in the woods.” He was often surprised, even at times bewildered by what he discovered. Had he started cutting checks before this journey, he would have given to the wrong organizations and wouldn’t have given his time to support the grant beyond the money.
This brings me to this column’s top tip: Invest in your own learning. Your highest and best role as a philanthropist is as a steward of learning – yours and those you work with, separately and together.
¹With thanks to Patrick Rothfuss and his Kingkiller Chronicle series for this play on answers and questions.