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Searching for Significance in the New Philanthropy

By Tom Watson on June 6, 2007No Comment

Searching for Significance in the New Philanthropy
By Susan Raymond, Ph.D., 6/6/07

In our collective histories, there has never been a more important time for philanthropy.  But we must understand what that importance truly is.

Mary Beth Martin and I embarked on a journey to chart the changing map of the new world of philanthropy. In our book, we speak blithely about multimillion dollar deals, billion dollar endowments, and trillion dollar economies.  To all of these zeros, we now add the prospective impact of a so-called  “multi-trillion dollar transfer of wealth.”  Here we risk an error, a possible trivialization about what the upcoming world of American philanthropy really reflects.

To call tens of trillions of dollars trivial would seem laughable.  It is not that the size of the flow is trivial; it certainly is anything but trivial.  Rather, what trivializes the transfer is the use of dollars to measure its importance. 

For the dollar value of the transfer of wealth is nothing compared to the opportunity it represents. The transfer of wealth is not about the money.

It has been called the legacy of our generation.  Herein lies the heart of the matter. 

And the “heart” in that statement evokes the correct imagery.  Philanthropy is the left ventricle of the heart of America.  The left ventricle of the human heart pumps oxygenated blood to the human body.  It enables all that the body intends and does.  This is philanthropy’s role in America, to pump private commitment into the community to bring not just charity to the needy, but solutions to complex problems.  Pumping the lifeblood of private voluntary investment in innovation, opportunities and solutions, philanthropy can re-energize civil society and our nation.

This is why the transfer of wealth is not about the money, but rather about an unprecedented opportunity.  Philanthropy is the voluntary commitment of personal resources to addressing problems that touch us all.  It is an expression of community commitment.  In effect, the left ventricle of philanthropy pumps individual and shared commitment into a robust American society.

Here is the most important measure.  Not the dollars, but the depth, breadth and height of  individual private commitment to create and share solutions to problems that hold our community our nation, our city, even our neighborhood that hold us all back from achieving America’s promise of a better life for all.  I want to emphasize that.  Hold us all back.  Problems that not only hold the poor back, or the weak, or the powerless, but problems because they are about the poor or the weak or the powerless that hold us all back from our nation’s better life.

In turn, however, that means the growing philanthropic sector must take on growing responsibility relative to civil society. If it is so important, then philanthropy must be equally serious.  Philanthropy must be more disciplined in problem-solving.  More judicious in identifying problems and seizing opportunities.  More transparent about its failures as well as its successes.  More careful about its governance.  And more collaborative in its approaches to all institutions on the societal commons, from nonprofits to government agencies to commercial markets.   

This is the essence of the arguments of my fellow authors in Mapping the New World of American Philanthropy.  The combination of size and societal significance means that philanthropy must take itself very, very seriously indeed.

Celebrate we should, but in doing so, let us not lose sight of the seriousness of the business we are in.  The money does not matter as much as the deeper meaning.  The transfer of wealth does not need a bank account to make it meaningful.  It needs a deep exchange of viewpoints about the causes of societal problems and their best solutions.

There is an infectious enthusiasm now about giving.  But for this enthusiasm to mature into renewed commitment of every American to our common bond, it requires thought about roles and responsibilities in our pluralistic and multi-partnered society. 

Philanthropy at the nexus of growing wealth and persistent problems requires that America engage in a conversation about community.

Carrying out such conversations and reaching an understanding is far from a trivial task.  Indeed, its implications should consume our thinking in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.  What you do, the decisions you make, the ways in which you pump lifeblood into the community are historic in dimensions and implications.  Make no mistake, however.  They are also being watched closely by the people, by those very communities you seek to serve.  Anne Glauber’s essay in the book cautions you very seriously about public skepticism, about the possible public reaction to philanthropic and nonprofit failure of transparency.  She should be read with utmost seriousness, even as we all celebrate the rising of this new world of American philanthropy.

Furthermore, and as if we did not have enough to celebrate, we stand at historic times, not just in our country, but in the world.  It is critical that we appreciate that fact.

Despite the agonies of war and disaster that seem to consume the headlines of the media, the global economy is growing rapidly.  Prosperity is spreading to nations that have not seen such a spread of wealth ever in their histories.  And that economic progress is occurring within new civil societies, where the voice of the people, the relevance of the community, the power of private initiative is newly awakened.  The dawn of an age of commitment to community is not just the promise of Main Street USA, it is the promise of main streets in India, China, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Morocco, Tunisia, Russia…the list is long and growing.

The Map to the New World of American Philanthropy will soon have a counterpart map, to the New World of Global Philanthropy.  We are embarked on the emergence of a second new world of philanthropy, a global community with multiple sites of growth, multiple mechanisms for community expression, multiple solutions, multiple facets of national leadership. 

There is much that we do not understand about this second new world.  Much that has not been examined about its evolution and about the strengthening of the left ventricle of the heart of the world.

This is a hint.  Stay tuned for the next book.

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