Beyond Blueprint: Reframing Philanthropy in 2015

Like many in the philanthropy world, I awaited and avidly read through this year’s Blueprint by Lucy Bernholz, as a fan and a fellow philanthropic advocate, advisor, and strategist. To extend and invite further discussion prompted by Blueprint 2015, I’ve captured some of my initial thoughts to share with GrantCraft readers. Though Lucy writes primarily about digital civil society, most of my response stems from philanthropic trends I see beyond the digital dimension, that is offline, up close, and personal. This focus is not intended to counter her insights (and foresights and hindsights, for that matter), but rather to provide broader context for emerging trends and her Big Ideas That Matter for 2015.

I see two big ideas in particular that reflect a major shift in how we understand and practice philanthropy. The first is the integration of social innovation and entrepreneurship (used here somewhat interchangeably, and certainly interconnectedly), and the second is the integration of philanthropy into our individual and collective lives by reframing philanthropy as what I call “Values in Action.”

BIG IDEA THAT MATTERS #1: Social Innovation Embedded in Philanthropy

Social entrepreneurship continues to develop and mature as a viable, growing subsector of the philanthropic market. At the same time, I see social innovation increasingly drive how we operate across the board in the social sector, not just as a discrete field. As social innovation grows, it’s becoming embedded within philanthropy itself, absorbed as a key success factor for effective philanthropy and positive social change. Why the growth, and why the integration of social innovation in philanthropy?

As a philanthropic advisor and social impact strategist, I see this convergence of innovation and philanthropy when I work with clients who pursue and craft innovative solutions to the social problems they prioritize as most compelling to them. While social enterprise or entrepreneurship used to be unfamiliar terms that needed to be introduced and explained, or program areas that only a handful of philanthropies supported, they now serve as the criteria that many philanthropists use to determine where and how to make grants, direct program-related investments, or otherwise deploy their assets across a wide array of issues. Social entrepreneurship and innovation are no longer merely what philanthropists support, they are how philanthropists support social change.

Social innovation has also become one of those buzzwords in the nomenclature of the social market. Any nonprofit or philanthropic leader worth their salt is now invariably lauded or referred to as a “serial social entrepreneur” or a “visionary social innovator,” even if these are relatively new terms or titles conferred retroactively to reframe leadership as innovation.

The growth of social innovation and entrepreneurship is further demonstrated and advanced by a full calendar of professional conferences, events, meetings, and other gatherings; a growing roster of organizations, companies, incubators, accelerators, competitions, fellowship, and award programs; and numerous academic programs, not to mention a growing body of literature from business schools and beyond. When I first taught a course on Social Entrepreneurship and Venture Philanthropy in 2009, there were a few dozen such courses around the country. Five years later, the majority of business schools offer courses, if not full-fledged programs in social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why this demand and why now? Three global forces combine to fuel this growth: 1) the aftermath of the Great Recession, 2) the unprecedented scale of threats from climate change to potential public health pandemics, and 3) historic breakthroughs in technology, telecommunications, and the sciences offering opportunities to create new solutions to entrenched and emerging problems. Individually and collectively, these forces compel people to seek new ways to address big challenges. Today, we recognize we need to innovate entrepreneurial initiatives to create a safe, sustainable, just, and vibrant society. We need an innovative civil society in which we can live, work, and thrive.

To some extent, the innovative civil society story is a parallel to how I see the digital civil society. I believe these qualifiers “digital” and “innovative” too often confuse the path with the destination. Building social innovation isn’t the end goal, it’s a means to reimagine and redefine how we achieve social impact and do good in the world. Likewise, I’d argue we need fewer strategies to promote digital innovation in and of itself and more digital innovations as strategies to promote a safer, more sustainable, just, and vibrant world. Becoming more fluent and adept with digital tools and social innovation is increasingly essential as the way we get things done and make progress in the social sector. But digital and social innovation are more philanthropic enablers than philanthropic goals. The innovative civil society like the digital civil society is less what we are working for, and more how we are working for social impact.

BIG IDEA THAT MATTERS #2: Integrated Philanthropy as Values in Action: Guided by Inspiration, Intention, Integrity, Impact.

As social innovation may be embedded or mainstreamed into philanthropy, philanthropy itself is increasingly integrated into how we work, live, and manage resources. Digital or not, forward-looking philanthropy in 2015 is no longer primarily defined nor shaped as a cluster of traditional charitable transactions, nor forged as an isolated financial activity or afterthought.  Philanthropy in 2015 is integrated as a central driver and indicator of financial and social identity.

In approaching philanthropy as an expression of identity and as an integrated social investment strategy to direct and leverage private resources for social good, we need a new mindset for giving. One way of framing I’ve found helpful for myself and my clients is to consider philanthropy as an extension and embodiment of Values in Action. When we frame philanthropy as Values in Action, we align our giving with the rest of our professional, financial, social, lifestyle, and other choices. In this way, philanthropy becomes integrated into the life of the philanthropist rather than relegated to the “doing good” part otherwise segmented out.

How do we reframe philanthropy as Values in Action, and what guidance can provide compass points in steering this philanthropy forward? The compass points I find most useful in supporting philanthropy as Values in Action are: inspiration, intention, integrity, and impact. These four elements can serve as cardinal guideposts for integrated philanthropy. In this framework, several fundamental questions arise to guide philanthropy in 2015. Philanthropic leaders, families, individuals, and organizations should consider:

  • Inspiration: What moves me? What is my motivation? What is driving my philanthropy? What keeps me up at night and gets me up in the morning? What is the thing I can’t not do?
  • Intention: What is my vision for social change? What is the impact I want to achieve? What are the outputs and outcomes that yield that result? What is my plan to get there?
  • Integrity: How will I pursue philanthropic goals? Are my philanthropic commitments and strategies responsible, respectful, and thoughtful? Do my philanthropic actions align with my core values? Does my philanthropy demonstrate professional and personal integrity?
  • Impact: How effective is my philanthropy? What difference am I making? What are the intended and unintended consequences of my philanthropy? How does my philanthropy generate value and effect qualitative change, as well as quantifiable metrics? In what ways does this work matter?

OTHER IDEAS AND QUESTIONS:

  • New Gen: What if we shift and expand the philanthropic focus from the Next Gen (let’s say 18-35 year olds), to the New Gen (emerging and current philanthropic leaders regardless of age sharing common traits and values such as collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship, digital savvy, business and/or investment acumen, global perspectives and experience, and transparency and accountability)?
  • Global Majority: In pursuit of poverty relief and human development, what if we refer to the “Bottom of the Pyramid,” or the less pejorative but similarly hierarchical and debasing “Base of the Pyramid,” as the “Global Majority”? How would a focus on the Global Majority reframe philanthropy, public debate and discourse, social and economic policy, and impact investment and social entrepreneurship?
  • Gender Lens: How does recent research and deeper understanding of the value of the gender lens in the private investment world enlighten and inform our practice and strategy of philanthropic investment and social sector work?

Thanks to Lucy Bernholz and GrantCraft for presenting much food for thought. I’d welcome readers’ reflections on the Big Ideas (and other ideas) I’ve shared here inspired by Blueprint 2015.

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