Germination vs Cultivation in Philanthropy

Last night I attended the REDF Social Enterprise Expo, where Bobby Shriver was the keynote speaker. Shriver is the force behind Product RED, the philanthropic brand initiative that gets companies like The Gap and Starbucks to brand their products with the Product RED brand and donate a portion of the proceeds to charity.

Shriver is quite the storyteller and did a great job engaging the audience. At one point he was talking about the development of the Product RED organization and he pointed out that he and Bono (his partner in the project) didn’t come up with everything on their own. Instead, they surrounded themselves with smart people and put their resources into the best ideas. Shriver argued that he thought philanthropy in general should focus more on “cultivation” than “germination”. It was the “cultivating” role of the Product RED organization that Shriver felt was most important.

I think this concept of cultivation vs germination is critical. Too much of philanthropy is dedicated to germination or the creation of ideas. Too many philanthropists think of themselves as problem-solvers who can figure out the solutions to the world’s problems. Instead, I think more philanthropists should think of themselves of cultivators. They should seek out outstanding organizations or ideas and supply the resources needed for them to grow.

It can be exciting to be the seed that hopes to grow into something wonderful. But it is just as honorable of a role to be the person who cultivates a garden full of outstanding people, ideas and organizations.


  1. Tony Wang says:

    Hi Sean,

    Great to see you at the event the other night – I too thought of the difference between strategic vs tactical philanthropy when I heard Shriver talking about “cultivation” vs “germination”. You may also be interested in reading this article from the SSIR opinion blog on Gardening vs. Landscaping which discusses a very similar theme:


  2. Anna says:

    The two – cultivation and germination – are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Perhaps the most promising new projects are those that both cultivate and germinate.

  3. Anna, I totally agree. I think too many foundations do germination and not enough do cultivation, but both are needed.

  4. Tony, I love Amy’s Landscaping vs Gardening post. Very much the same themes I was touching on.