T-Shaped People & Philanthropy

Last November I quoted philanthropy advisor Lowell Weiss’ use of the phrase “synthesizing generalists” to describe those people who Weiss thinks make great philanthropic advisors. Today I want to introduce a similar term for the type of people that foundations and other funders should be cultivating: T-Shaped People.

The phrase is becoming closely associated with the pioneer design firm IDEO and their CEO Tim Brown. In a recent Fast Company article, Brown wrote:

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.

The phrase “synthesizing generalist,” like the term “Renaissance Man,” implies a person who has a large breadth of knowledge and is able to synthesize disparate information into insight that surpasses that of someone who only understands a small set of subject areas (even if they understand those areas deeply). A T-Shaped person is somewhat different in that in suggests broad knowledge of various disciplines, but also a deep knowledge of at least one core subject.

In my travels talking to many, many people involved in philanthropy I’ve noticed that most of them say they never planned to become involved in philanthropy. In fact, a recent study on the philanthropy advising field commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation interviewed many of the top philanthropy advisors in the country and concluded: “Not one went to school to study to become a donor advisor, and not one planned on working with donors as a major professional activity.” Instead, it seems that most great philanthropists (and philanthropy advisors) gained deep knowledge of a related field and later in their life “synthesized” their deep knowledge with their many other interests.

This understanding of philanthropy resonates with the concept of Consilience, which I wrote about for OnPhilanthropy.com last year:

I believe the key to unlocking the potential of philanthropy is to break out of our silos and embrace consilience. Consilience means “unity of knowledge” (or more literally the “jumping together” of knowledge). The phrase was popularized by famed biologist Edward O. Wilson in his aptly named book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. What consilience recognizes is that every field of study captures only a snapshot of reality. While economists might believe that economics is the study of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, the fact is economic theory does not actually describe reality until you begin to take into account the biological, psychological, and sociological behaviors of humans. Even then, a broader systems approach is needed to understand how the market affects the environment and human culture, as well as the moral implications of market outcomes.

Today, philanthropy is faced with the coming together of traditional models of giving with market based social good production. While this systems based approach to philanthropy is promising, too often it seems that those schooled in for-profit business models assume that their knowledge can be directly applied to philanthropy. At the same time, many people who understand giving at a deep level fail to recognize the potential of market based approaches to social good creation. For philanthropy to realize the potential being presented in the 21st century, the trick will not just be to bring economists, sociologists, technologists, biologists, etc to the table, but to truly forge a consilience of knowledge across all domains. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The first step to this goal must be simply to encourage people with varied knowledge to speak with one another. Not lecture at each other, but to truly create a conversation.

Consilience, T-Shaped People, Synthesizing Generalists. What does it all mean? It means none of us have all the answers. None of us know what’s right for philanthropy. It means that for philanthropy to truly reach its potential, we need to “jump together” all of our varied wisdom in a way that recognizes that our contribution is no more or less important than that contributed by people with domain expertise different than our own.

What’s it take to pull this off? Empathy.

Tim Brown specifically states that T-Shaped people must be empathetic to pull it all together. Guess what? If there is one skill that everyone in philanthropy has it is empathy. Without empathy, philanthropy simply isn’t an interesting subject. If there is one field that can pull off the difficult trick of creating consilience, it is ours.


  1. Lauren Finzer says:

    Terrific post. I think your ideas about the need for consilience are right on target for philanthropy and other fields. And I agree that philanthropy can and should be the leader in creating consilience–that’s what gets me most excited about the field.

    In response to the first part of the post, I think some of the interdisciplinary undergraduate programs springing up all over the US aim to create T-shaped people. They’re designed to build the top of the T, with rigorous graduate training deepening the vertical leg. My fellow Human Biology undergraduates at Stanford, for example, benefit from a broad introduction to the biological and behavioral sciences. We build the tops of our T shapes by surveying disciplines including anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, sociology, biology, and more. We learn to digest diverse kinds of research. Then many Human Biology majors go on to medical school or other graduate training, deepening the vertical legs of their T’s. Perhaps not directly relevant to philanthropy, but one example of an attempt to create synthesizing generalists that go on to become T-shaped people.

  2. Thanks Lauren. It use to be that people went to school to be trained to work. Now, the best schools know that most people will not work in the area of their school major, that they’ll change jobs many times and that they will need new skill sets often. So the best schools teach people how to learn rather than teach them specific skills.

    Sounds like Stanford is doing right by you!