Blogging About Philanthropy

Most blogs written by foundation employees do not actually talk about the field of philanthropy. Instead they talk about what they foundation is doing and are often little more than frequently updated online newsletters (Gara LaMarche, the CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, writes a personal blog about music, politics and all sorts of interesting things, but rarely talks about philanthropy).

Lucy Bernholz, myself and the many other people who write about philanthropy tend to do the reverse. Neither I nor Lucy write much about the firms we run, instead we talk about philanthropy more generally. So that’s why I’ve been so pleased to see that in his first two posts, Paul Brest has begun to stake out a personal blog about philanthropy. He’s even decided to follow the classic model of most bloggers (but not most foundation blogs) of commenting on other people’s blogs, writing about what other blogs say on his own blog and (this is critical) disagreeing with the other bloggers!

Why do I care about the disagreeing part? At the Forum on Wednesday, I encouraged Paul and Bill Somerville to really engage on the issues and not just agree that both approaches were needed. Frankly, they came out swinging (the video will be up in about a week) and were willing to pointedly explain where they thought the other person was wrong. I was amused by the audience reaction. My partner at Ensemble Capital, a man who’s spent his entire 40-year+ career in wealth management, told me that he thought the Forum was great but that Bill and Paul had been pretty tame during the debate. I also got an email from a life long philanthropy professional who told me “that was the most combative debate I’ve ever seen at a philanthropy event!”

Wealth management is a world where combative arguments are par for the course. If you are not prepared to accept constructive criticism and to layout why you disagree with another person, this isn’t the industry isn’t for you. Realize that for any trade to occur in the market a person who thinks an investment should be bought must find someone who wants to sell. In other words, every transaction in a financial market is the manifestation of two opposing beliefs.

But philanthropy is different. One of the audience questions I got at the Forum read, “Although Sean might be looking for a fight, I wonder if there is a happy medium here…”

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I never yell, I rarely get angry, I don’t pick fights and I’m just not the kind of person who enjoys criticizing people. But I DO like to figure out which idea is best, which strategy is most likely to work, whose point of view is most valid.

The only way to learn and get better is to have your beliefs tested and to modify them if they don’t stand up to the heat. I’ve been writing this blog for over two years now. One of the reasons I started it was to learn from other people. To put my ideas out there to be tested. I’ve changed some of my thoughts on how philanthropy should be practiced. If my readers and other bloggers had all just said “good thinking Sean!” instead of hammering me on the points they didn’t agree with, I never would have learned.

I love what Paul is doing with his blog and I hope we see more of it. We all have a lot to learn.

One Comment

  1. Joe says:

    Give them hell, Sean! God forbid anyone should get their feelings hurt. A couple virtual nosebleeds would do the industry a world of good.