Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Change is a distance event

By Todd Cohen

The philanthropic world needs to wake up.

The clout that flows from wealth, often built by someone else, can lull foundations and donors into believing their ideas and the dollars they control hold the key to society’s riddles.

Hooked on their own hype, smitten with philanthropic trends and anxious for quick fixes, these funders treat nonprofits as street peddlers that must perform tricks to get a handout.

But that kind of charity is a band-aid that will not begin to fix the deeply rooted and tangled problems our communities face.

Philanthropists, like many in our society, live in a dream world.

A new report by an independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, finds that America is “dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil.”

The same is true of American philanthropy, which fails to see that nonprofits are poorly equipped to take on the internal social problems that are ripping our communities apart.

With government gutting social programs, nonprofits are left to tend to those among us least able to fend for themselves.

Yet just as those living on the margins lack the skills to tap society’s resources, nonprofits are poorly prepared to operate effectively to take on critical social ills.

The lack of skills, training and resources in the nonprofit world is a disgrace for which nonprofits and philanthropic funders share the blame.

Instead of doling out dollars for pet causes or forcing nonprofits to swallow the strategic trend of the day, funders should work hand in hand with nonprofits to figure out how to best invest those dollars to gird themselves for a trek that promises to be long and grueling.

And rather than bowing and scraping, the boards and executives of nonprofits should push hard to help funders dig deep and grasp the organizational challenges nonprofits face.

Individuals have no business serving on nonprofit boards if they are not willing to fight hard to secure – and contribute — the resources their organizations need.

Just as we will not free ourselves of terrorism simply by draping ourselves in the flag or attacking Iraq, philanthropy will not begin to help America rid itself of social corrosion without practicing, learning from and adapting itself to the collaboration, capacity-building and social investment it so fond of talking about.

In our complex social ecosystem, we all are swimming upstream. Those at the top of the economic food chain need to work together more closely with those lower down to prepare one another and our communities for the long haul ahead.

By shedding the illusion that money breeds wisdom, and embracing the idea that change is a team effort that takes a lot of hard work and is best performed one step at a time, philanthropy will begin to realize its promise as a long-term investor in social change.

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