The End to a Technocratic Approach to Philanthropy?

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Paul Connolly of TCC Group.

By Paul Connolly

image Has the recent economic crisis brought out a softer, more heartfelt side of institutional philanthropy?  It sure seems that way, based on the discussions at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference in Pittsburgh this week.

Dev Patnaik, author of "Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy," kicked off the meeting with a provocative talk on how organizations can be more successful by being more empathetic.  He observed how it is too easy for grantmakers to be disconnected from the grantees and communities that they support.  Patnaik encouraged funders to work harder to step outside of themselves and "walk in the shoes" of their beneficiaries.  

During a session on "Leading from Within," a room full of foundation leaders discussed ways they could lead with an open heart, pay more attention to their gut sense, attend to relationships authentically, and renew their own spirits.  Participants agreed that a funder can not check his or her emotions — and humanity — at the door while on the job.

Ira Hirschfield, the President of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, spoke at a plenary session about how when his foundation needed to reduce its grantmaking budget last year, he struggled with deciding how to communicate to grantees in a responsible and ethical manner that they had been cut from the Fund’s portfolio. He also noted how he had to rely on his instincts and intuition during the difficult process of laying off foundation staff.

So, has the pendulum swung far from a technocratic approach to philanthropy, so logical, metric-oriented, and evidence-based practices are much less important? Of course not. The key is balance. Grantmakers need to employ their multiple intelligences — including rational and emotional — to do their job well and unleash more of philanthropy’s potential.

And in some cases, an empathetic approach might go too far for grantmakers.  Dev Patnaik praised Apple’s deep connection to its customer base.  In fact, Apple knew that consumers wanted an Ipod even before we did!  Yet funders always need to be cautious when they think that they have a better understanding of what their constituents need than the stakeholders themselves.  Given the power imbalance between foundations and nonprofits, this can be a set-up for arrogant and heavy-handed funder behavior.  Patnaik also suggested that grantmakers should strive to get to the point where their advice is perceived to be more important than their money.  While it is usually a good thing when nonprofits see a foundation as being more than just an ATM, funders need to be wary about offering unsolicited advice … and even when they are asked for guidance.  There are some cynical (and realistic?) grantseekers out there that believe that "when you want money from a funder, ask for advice, and when you want advice, ask for money."