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July 21, 2010

The same is true in philanthropy as in life: when we want answers, we tend to go to people we believe are the experts on a given topic. The more money we have at our disposal, the more likely we are to seek out expert advice.

But the “expert model” of philanthropy has its limits. And so here’s today’s word of advice to the Friends of Buffett and Gates (FOBGs) who are considering how to respond to their call to fellow billionaires that they give away half of their wealth. Make sure your philanthropy reflects the perspectives and priorities of grantees, community members and others with a front-row view of the problems you are working to solve.

Dev Patnaik, author of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (FT Press, 2009), appeared at the GEO conference this spring to help us explore how the notion of “widespread empathy” can reinvigorate philanthropy. GEO has been working on the topic of stakeholder engagement, and we wanted Dev to help us dive deeper into what true engagement means, how it contributes to better philanthropic results, and how grantmakers can go about making it happen.

Dev told us how the people designing running shoes at Nike are runners themselves. He talked about how the employee parking lot at Harley-Davidson’s headquarters has a sign that reads, “No cages (that’s biker slang for ‘cars’). Motorcycle parking only.” Incidentally, the lot is filled with Harleys owned by avid bikers who are passionate about the company and the work they do.

These organizations believe they will succeed to the extent that they have an intuitive understanding of what their customers want and need. They know there is a danger associated with relying exclusively on data. And they have created organizations where employees at all levels have a deep connection to people outside their walls—especially those who buy and use their companies’ products.
The lesson in these examples for philanthropy and the nonprofit sector as a whole is that empathy is about more than having compassion for others, as important as that is. It is also about operating in a way that ensures that an organization’s work is informed by the opinions and perspectives of the people who are affected by that work.

Foundations naturally want to fill program positions with individuals who have a deep understanding of the issues. This often leads to the hiring of academic and other experts, who are expected to arrive on the job with preconceived answers to many of the questions at the heart of the grantmaker’s work.
But the problem comes when the “expert model” of philanthropy leads us to overlook or, worse, ignore the learning and expertise of the people we support. GEO’s new publication on stakeholder engagement, Do Nothing About Me Without Me, catalogues the many benefits that can come from including more grantee and community voices in philanthropy. And we include numerous examples of grantmakers that are already busy engaging the knowledge and passion of others.

In fact, GEO’s 2008 national survey found that foundations that have staff with nonprofit experience were significantly more likely to take proven effectiveness-enhancing steps such as soliciting grantee feedback and providing capacity-building and leadership development support to grantees.
However, it is not just about whom we hire to work at our foundations; it’s also about what we ask them to do. As the FOBGs consider setting up new foundations to channel their money to the important causes they care about, I hope they will remember that complex systems change rarely happens by fiat. It happens when those with a stake in the issue are involved in generating a productive response.
By all means, build a staff with all the knowledge and expertise you can muster. But make sure they understand that their job isn’t to sit in a cocoon and design solutions. They also need to get out there and make connections, listen, and engage others in your foundation’s work. Philanthropy should be a learning experience for all of us . . . and we need to create foundations that have this as part of their DNA.

Kathleen Enright