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July 27, 2010

When the Monitor Institute first started its exploration of the evolving “future of philanthropy” ten years ago, I was one of its funders, a program officer at the Packard Foundation. A big part of what we were trying to do was to create an urgency and an awareness that the world around philanthropy was changing, and that if philanthropy was going to remain relevant and achieve its potential in the coming years, the field—and the institutions and individuals within it—were going to need to change too.
Now, ten years and a financial crisis (or two, if you want to count the dot-com bust) later, I’m working on the other side of the coin. The challenge is no longer about convincing anyone that the world around philanthropy is changing. An intimidating range of forces—blurring sectoral roles, new connective technologies, and globalization—are transforming the landscape of public problem solving. We face “wicked problems” (to borrow the language of design theorist Horst Rittel)—large, complex social and environmental challenges that don’t adhere to traditional geographic and disciplinary boundaries, and where both the problem and the solution are often unclear and shifting.

And in this new landscape, the question isn’t about whether and how the world is changing. It’s about how funders can have a greater impact in a world that’s already shifting—and will continue to do so.
But as organized philanthropy in the United States hits its century mark, what’s quite remarkable is that many of the field’s core principles and practices remain remarkably similar to the ones created by John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie when they first created the foundation form 100 years ago. The world around philanthropy is changing much, much faster than philanthropy itself.

So the pressing question for today, and for the future, is about how funders can begin to institute, adapt, and invent practices and approaches that will better fit the emerging environment in which they work. For philanthropic and civic leaders looking to cultivate change in today’s rapidly shifting landscape, simply tweaking the status quo and adopting established best practices won’t be enough. Funders will have to pioneer “next practices”—effective approaches that are well-suited to tomorrow’s more networked, dynamic, and interdependent context.

In our new report, What’s Next for Philanthropy: Acting Bigger and Adapting Better in a Networked World, Katherine Fulton, Barbara Kibbe, and I have put forward our best thinking about the shifting landscape for philanthropy, and about ten key practices and principles that we believe can help funders achieve greater impact in the coming decade. We feel that while the cutting edge of philanthropic innovation over the last decade has been mostly about improving the effectiveness, efficiency, and responsiveness of individual organizations, the next practices of the coming 10 years will have to build on those efforts to include an additional focus on coordination and adaptation—how funders can act bigger and adapt better.

We highlight five practices that funders can use to act bigger:

  • Understand the context
  • Pick the right tool(s) for the job
  • Align independent action
  • Activate networks
  • Leverage others’ resources

And five approaches to help them adapt better in the coming decade:

  • Know what works (and what doesn’t)
  • Keep pace with change
  • Open up to new inputs
  • Share by default
  • Take smart risks

These practices are by no means new; innovative funders have been doing many of these things, and doing them well, for years. And we certainly don’t pretend that the list is in any way comprehensive. But we believe that these ten practices represent what Chip and Dan Heath (in their new book Switch) refer to as “bright spots”—instances where new strategies are showing especially great promise, especially as emerging tools and approaches catch up with the aspirations of funders in the new context.
Over the next few days, I’ll dive a bit deeper into a number of these next practices, and hope you’ll join me in starting to think intentionally about how we might innovate new ways of working that will become the best practices of the coming decade.
Cross-posted at Working Wikily.

Gabriel Kasper