We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world — to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity — our own capacity for life — that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.
We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe.
– Wendell Berry
If you haven’t had a chance to read Wendell Berry, I would highly recommend him. Start perhaps with his poetry, or with a novel like Jayber Crow, which is part of his series about a fictional town called Port William; then continue onto his essays about the environment, farming, and modernity. If you enjoy a good read, it may be hard to put his books down. Even though the topics he covers in much of his writing may seem far afield from philanthropy, he’s someone who I’d give my right arm to spend an afternoon with because of how much he has informed many of my perspectives in my work with funders. More than anything, his writings have given me a picture of true humility and reverence for the environment that stand in stark contrast to the expendable “move fast and break things” culture we live in today.
I believe Berry has much to say to us in the realm of philanthropy, where there seems to be a new philanthropist on the scene every few months who makes promises to shake up the status quo (as if no one else had ever thought of addressing the problems they see in our world). Some of Berry’s characters in his writing become disconnected from their local communities and put their faith solely in the latest and greatest technologies, painting a picture of hubris that has become a norm — if not a model — to follow. While it is true that the needs in our broken world often seem overwhelming and we are in need of new solutions, so often the lack of humility itself on the part of donors becomes a barrier to learning from and working with others to make an impact.
At the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), we’ve been working for over 15 years to provide foundation leaders and trustees in the U.S. and globally with data and insight to help improve philanthropic effectiveness. Much of that work has revolved around helping funders to listen more carefully to those on the ground doing the work, and to learn and follow evidence-based best practices.
Some of these best practices include ways that funders can build strong relationships with nonprofits and their community constituents, how they become more transparent, and how they can provide the kinds of support that have shown to benefit nonprofits the most. At the heart of all this work is humility.
Recently, CEP expanded our audience to include individual donors, and we are now producing free data-driven resources aimed at helping this new audience. In case you missed it, our first piece of this kind was Donors: Five Things Nonprofit Wish You Knew. Over the next few months, we will continue to share free resources to help donors learn as much as they can so they can do their work more effectively.
If humility is also a core value you share with us, will you join us in listening and learning in service of effectiveness?
Find more resources for donors at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.