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Are traditional assumptions about how we “do” philanthropy preventing us from finding new and better ways of working?
The field of philanthropy has its share of orthodoxies. For example, the idea that grants are a foundation’s most important product, that funders shouldn’t take controversial positions, that philanthropy should support only proven approaches, that foundations should invest their assets to maximize financial returns. The list is nearly endless.
But as the world around philanthropy changes rapidly, it’s important to consciously examine the orthodoxies that guide practice and determine whether these old assumptions are still valid, and whether we ought to carry them forward or flip them on their heads—partially or completely.
Many innovative funders are already beginning to question some of the most deep-seated orthodoxies of the field. Take the Telluride Foundation, a small community foundation in Colorado. Telluride is countering the common belief that foundations operate only in the nonprofit world. The foundation manages a venture accelerator for early-stage and startup businesses in areas such as tourism, energy, and education. Each year, it enrolls up to six entrepreneurs in a five-month accelerator camp that includes equity investment, mentorship, and networking. The program taps Telluride’s community of entrepreneurs and second homeowners as mentors, coordinates with small-business development centers for targeted training, and runs an online community forum for the entrepreneurs.
Another example is the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, one of a number of foundations that are now challenging the assumption that foundations are built to be permanent. The foundation has elected to spend down its assets by 2020, guided by the belief that applying its assets more intensively in the short term can make a greater impact on California’s most-urgent education and environmental challenges than giving just a small fraction of its assets in perpetuity.
Innovative funders can begin by creating time and space—even if it’s just an hour at a staff or board meeting—to think explicitly about the orthodoxies within their own operations, brainstorming as many of these engrained assumptions as possible.
The simple act of naming the orthodoxies can be a powerful exercise in itself—and a good reminder that just because things have been done in a certain way in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to continue to do them in the future.