By Todd Cohen
It’s time for philanthropy to move beyond simply lending a hand and start leading.
Society needs charitable leaders willing to take risks in remaking the way we work together to take on our toughest problems.
Stuck in a rut of inbred tradition and unchallenged power flowing from donated wealth, foundations in the U.S. generally have been content to dole out cash to favored causes and, sometimes, to try to improve the delivery of social services.
Organized philanthropy has plodded along that track since it took shape in the early 1900s to meet the needs of the industrial economy on which it was modeled.
But the industrial age has given way to a global information economy, which so far has failed to unleash and harness its potential for addressing poverty and the other crushing social problems we face.
That also is a failure of philanthropy – a huge player in our economy and society – although change is beginning to emerge.
Some grantmakers, for example, are starting to act more like venture investors and less like traditional lenders.
They are involving themselves more directly in the work of the nonprofits they support, helping them operate more effectively. They also are starting to try to measure the impact their grants have, share the know-how they acquire and team up with one another to pool resources.
And a growing number of organizations and networks have emerged to support the work of organized philanthropy.
But while important, these developments still are isolated and fall far short of what’s needed.
The new economy needs a new kind of philanthropy that flows out of, reflects and taps the new economy’s unprecedented resources and relationships.
Philanthropy is a lot more than money or the collected wisdom of the boards and hired hands who dole it out – limited as that wisdom may be because those trustees and staff typically do not look like or work as true partners with the communities they serve.
Where industrial society consisted of self-contained, top-down institutions, the global information society is a complex network of networks – a rich mosaic of individuals and groups with diverse needs, skills and know-how.
Blessed with resources that many individuals, groups and communities lack and need, organized philanthropy occupies a rare intersection in the mosaic.
The challenge for grantmakers is to recognize that the intersection is not their private turf but rather a common hub in the web where individuals and groups – working together — can participate in and help regulate the exchange of charitable supply and demand.
Grantmakers, critical players in that exchange, need to venture beyond simply handing out the charitable dollars they control and take on the job of promoting new philanthropy and the development of new ideas about how to address the huge social challenges we face.
Grantmakers, for example, can enlist individuals, government, business, charities and civic and religious groups in the job of tapping and pooling the resources to which they have access.
Grantmakers also can step into the role of advocates for long-term change, spurring all of us to move beyond seeing only the critical needs of the moment, and instead working together to convert the promise of the new economy into a new philanthropy that enriches our communities.