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Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Philanthropy needs broader vision

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By Todd Cohen

Philanthropy needs a greater mix of hands managing the exchange of charitable supply and demand.

Grantmakers, in short, must transform themselves into organizations whose decision-makers truly represent and reflect their communities.

Just as businesses thrive by heeding customers, philanthropies can be more effective by integrating into their organizations and decision-making the voices of their constituents and partners.

Otherwise, philanthropy will remain an inefficient and marginal marketplace, with philanthropic supply out of sync with social demand and need.

Aspiring to heal and repair our communities, philanthropy has produced important efforts to close the schisms – particularly of race and class – that scar society.

Sadly, however, philanthropy has failed to mend its own holes, generally leaving decisions in the hands of white men in the economic, ethnic and ideological mainstream.

That’s a big hurdle in the face of the critical social problems philanthropy tries to address – racism, poverty, poor health and illiteracy, to name a few.

Finding solutions to these complex and interconnected problems requires a broader range of perspectives than philanthropy has been willing or able to embrace.

Philanthropy functions as a nearly unregulated market in which the exchange of benefits is skewed: Through the dollars they dole out, grantmakers exercise disproportionate clout, setting social agendas and shaping the programs that nonprofits offer and the way they operate.

Grantmakers also reap a healthy return on their charity in the form of personal and professional satisfaction, generous tax-exempt privileges and upbeat public relations.

Yet despite the power it wields and the benefits it enjoys, philanthropy lacks the vision to effectively tackle social problems because it can see only through a narrow lens.

A growing number of grantmakers – such as North Carolina’s Mary Reynolds Babcock, Warner and Z. Smith Reynolds foundations – are trying to broaden their lenses and connect themselves more intimately to their communities.

But many grantmakers, by failing to build boards and staffs that genuinely reflect their communities, amputate themselves from the marketplace – and limit their power to see the full range of needs and promising solutions.

For their part, nonprofits and their clients have little voice in what grantmakers support – other than through funding requests that typically cater to grantmakers’ programmatic tastes.

By embracing a broader group of decision-makers, grantmakers can better match philanthropic supply and demand – and build resilient organizations rooted in individuals who want to learn from one another and their communities.

That is hard and painful work. Americans have a tough time talking to one another about their differences, particularly on the issue of race, and an even tougher time working together to resolve them.

To change, people working in philanthropy must be willing to challenge themselves and their co-workers and partners, and be challenged by them, about their most basic assumptions and prejudices.

Staking their success on the embrace, exploration and balancing of such differences in outlook can generate a lot of seemingly extraneous work and workplace stress for grantmakers, leaving boards and particularly staffs with little room to hide and less time to focus on their jobs.

But it’s a big job that needs doing, and it’s doubly critical because it mirrors the other big job facing philanthropy, which will most effectively bridge the gaps in society only when it learns to plug the holes in itself.

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