Risk-Averse Philanthropy: How General Counsels Can Advance or Stifle Progress

a stack of paper with a padlock binding it, the key in the keyhole. Image by stevepb on Pixabay

Hi everyone. Before we get started with today’s post, next week, to kick off AANHPI heritage month, I’ll be on a virtual conversation with colleague Jennifer Li Dotson on May 3rd at 12pm PT. It’s free, with automatic captions. I hope to see you there.

I am still reeling from this op-ed published a few days ago. A time of relentless attacks on our communities and on democracy itself requires our leaders to take bold stances, not engage in the white moderation and both-siding that has led to the rise of antivaxxers, climate change deniers, flat-earthers, and people who think Love Actually is a good movie. (I said what I said!)

However, progressive-leaning philanthropy has always been like this. Months ago I was having lunch with a colleague who works at a prominent national foundation. We were lamenting how risk-averse progressive-leaning funders are, how board trustees and CEOs are hesitant to take bold actions.

“It’s also the GCs,” said my colleague, “the General Counsels. They have a lot of power and often prevent foundations from doing anything even remotely risky.”

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Philanthropy’s equivalent of “All Lives Matter”

Several dollar bills popping up out of the ground like plants

Hi everyone, I’ve been busy filing taxes, so apologies for the lateness and ineloquence of this post (Also, I’m not sure why it won’t let me put captions under the image, but it’s an image of the ground with several rolled up dollar bills popping up out of it).

Last week, six influential philanthropic leaders released this joint statement about protecting pluralism and diverse perspectives in philanthropy. This letter has generated a lot of strong feelings among my colleagues. As half of these six co-authors are leaders I know and respect, I am offering my thoughts here, in line with the third principle proposed in the article, which is “When we challenge another’s views or activities, we focus on substantive arguments and invite response.” Thank you for creating this opportunity for dialog, and for accepting my perspective in the constructive spirit in which it is offered.

This letter is the philanthropic equivalent of “all lives matter.” In this case, its premise is that all philanthropy is equally valid and good: “philanthropy provides the greatest value when donors enable and encourage pluralism by supporting and investing in a wide and diverse range of values, missions, and interests.”

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The 50-Minute-Meeting Revolution and the End of Back-to-Back Meetings!

[Image description: Two tiny little birds, perched on the rim of a terra cotta bowl that’s filled with some sort of liquid, hopefully water. The birds are bluish and yellowish. They are facing each other, and the one on the right has their beak opened, seeming to be communicating something. Image by aitoff on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. Confession: I don’t hate most meetings. I mean, if you think about it, in our sector meetings often mean we get to spend time with usually awesome people to brainstorm ideas on how to make the world better. This is something our ancestors, who likely worked long hours doing manual labor, probably dreamed about for us: “One day, our descendants will be paid to sit, eat tiny oranges that are easy to peel, and talk while others write stuff on the walls.”

However, it seems lately that meetings have been out of control. The pandemic, which should have slowed us down, somehow increased the numbers of meetings we each have. It’s so easy and acceptable now to have virtual meetings. Not having to drive, find parking, shower, and brush one’s teeth means many people end up with more frequent back-to-back meetings. I’ve had days when I’ve had 5 or more. One colleague I know said she had 12 in one day!

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No, social enterprise and earned revenues will not solve nonprofits’ funding problems

[Image description: A fluffy reddish-brown squirrel, looking directly at the camera with a cute but quizzical expression, their front paws touching. Image by 995645 on Pixabay.]

Hi everyone, for those who missed the Unicorns Unite’s 5-year virtual reunion event on Valentine’s Day, the other co-authors and I are doing an encore for folks in other countries on April 18th to discuss what we’ve learned since we published the book five years ago. It’ll be midnight for me, but that’s also when I do my best work! Register here and see you then! (Folks in the US who don’t mind staying up at midnight or 3am, feel free to join too!)

A couple of weeks back, I met a great new colleague. I knew we would get along because we wore the same brand of outdoor gear, which I will not mention here until the multi-million-dollar sponsorship deal goes through. We were having a sparkling conversation when my new friend started an impassionate speech about how nonprofits should focus more on earned revenues. I watched in horror, mouth stuffed with a blue-raspberry-flavored Jolly Rancher, as my colleague, a funder, continued on about how earned income would allow orgs to have more control and not be as beholden to the whims of funders and donors.

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10 Signs You Might Have Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome

[Image description: An adorable fluffy yellow duckling with dark eyes and an orange bill, staring at the camera, being held gently by two hands. Image by jjheinold on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, before we get started, here’s a conversation on Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) taking place on April 21 at 10am PT. It’s free, and auto-captions will be enabled.

Some of you may remember #DAFHobbyGate, where many, many fundraising colleagues got very upset because on an earlier webinar I mentioned that “philanthropy has often become a hobby for the rich and it really shouldn’t be.” Dozens of indignant people told stories of the wonderful donors they encountered who would die before they thought of their charitable work as a hobby. Others called me pretentious, self-righteous, and ignorant. A few demanded I apologize for my thoughtless and insensitive words (which I did, very sincerely).

Here’s the thing, though: Not a single donor indicated they were offended. Or certainly no one expressed they got offended in their role as a donor, as I suspect all of us in the sector are also donors. The folks who were bothered expressed their rage as fundraisers, wealth advisors, and fundraising thought-leaders.

In an earlier post (“White development colleagues, we need to talk about fundraiser fragility”) I mentioned Fundraiser Stockholm Syndrome, this primal urge among fundraisers to protect donors from any and all criticisms and discomfort, as if donors were perfect beings immune to committing any wrongdoings, or fragile baby birds who cannot fend for themselves. It is preventing us from having deep, necessary conversations that would advance our field.

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