Building better philanthropy through disruption

Communities / Article

Knight Foundation recently supported Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ annual conference in Miami. Below, Heather Peeler, its vice president of programs, shares some of the important lessons learned.

Disruptive forces are at work in our communities and in our lives every day. Disruption happens in and out of our control; in positive and negative ways. Grantmakers are uniquely positioned to sense disruption. Through their wide networks and reports from grantees, perceptive grantmakers may sense early indicators of disruption before others have a chance to notice.

If grantmakers listen closely to grantees and others in their networks about these disruptions, they create learning moments and opportunities to connect and respond in ways that contribute to our collective resilience.  Here’s the choice for grantmakers:  When disruption occurs, what can they do to ensure it has a beneficial impact on grantees and the communities they serve?

“Be the duct tape” was a memorable mandate given to this year’s conference participants by Mae Hong, director of Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors and an authority on adhesives. (Translation: An effective grantmaker is one who is malleable and able to bind together the parts needed to build a solution in a disruptive situation.) Grantmakers have a tremendous role to play given the resources at their disposal; flexible, unrestricted, long-term funding is crucial in  allowing innovation to spring from disruption.

Our failures can also be our most important disruptions. “Failure” and “innovation” are words that rarely exist independent of each other. The power of a failure is all in how you unpack it. Failure can be a learning opportunity and lead you to better outcomes if you have the courage to change, or it can paralyze you and cause you to retreat because the risk feels too great. When is the last time you had an honest and supportive conversation with grantees about your and their biggest failure?

If disruption can make you stronger and more resilient, how can grantmakers use it as a tool to strengthen grantees? One example is The Barr Foundation’s Fellowship program, which kicks things off with disruption — a three-month sabbatical for nonprofit leaders. Fellows find themselves within an entirely disruptive environment with new opportunities, vantage points and new networks. Each fellow’s organization also receives a flexible $40,000 grant to help it build on this disruptive moment.

At the conference Andrew Zolli, the executive director and chief creative officer of PopTech, shared a famous John Wheeler quote: “We shape the world by the questions we ask.” When grantmakers and their grantees ask questions about what’s possible — not just what outcomes they want to achieve — they are likely to uncover new solutions and arrive in an entirely different place. Debra Jacobs of The Patterson Foundation recently echoed this, writing: “Being agile as lessons are learned will propel improved outputs and outcomes.” Grantmakers who are open and adaptable look for ways to support grantees beyond traditional grants and to help grantees increase their own capacity.

If you’re interested in discovering more about taking on disruption and incorporating learning moments into your own work, consider looking at some of the materials and videos we’ve compiled from The Learning Conference, making use of GEO’s public resource library, or getting in touch with me to share what steps you’re taking toward innovation. It takes courage and conviction to face some of the difficult realities you may uncover during these times of listening for disruption.

By Heather Peeler, vice president of programs at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations