November 8, 2005
by Ruth Tebbets Brousseau
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on philanthropic leadership—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
CAN BILL GATES rid the world of disease, or even save Africa as the recent New Yorker article about the Gates Foundation queried? Who knows whether achieving these bold goals is possible but no one (at least among those interviewed in the article) is willing to say Gates can’t achieve them—and it’s exciting and energizing to believe that it is possible… after all, look at what Gates has accomplished in the world of information technology. There is little downside to believing that even the most ambitious goals are worth shooting for and it is a positive attribute of leadership in any field, philanthropy included, to aim high and to inspire others with our missions.
Big is good when it comes to mission. But it is also a critical characteristic of leadership to be able to distinguish large from small and provide attention commensurate to a calibrated understanding of significance. The zen of leadership is to be able to know what appears to be small and is actually large or, conversely, what appears to be large and is actually small. When it comes to understanding the results of philanthropy, more developed leadership in our field is needed.
Missions are bold and daring, and this is good unless the grandeur of where we’re heading so outshines the actual accomplishments of our grants that the results fall out of sight. Communicating the results of the work of philanthropy is at least as important as inspiring with our missions, yet this is an undeveloped area of our field. We need leadership that is as enthusiastic and effective at understanding and communicating what we accomplish as we are about communicating mission. Results are big, too, and deserve to be seen, even when they appear very modest.
There are a number of good reasons why the accomplishments of our grants tend to fall off the far side of the world and I will mention some of them:
There are other reasons, also, that cut deeper into our culture, philanthropic and societal, that explain why the promise of philanthropy always seems grander than our achievements. I’ll mention two of these. One of my favorite pieces of philanthropic literature, Moral Principles and Private Philanthropy by Michael Hooker, describes the systematic problem of grantor-grantee complicity in
Ruth Tebbets Brousseau is director of Evaluation and Organizational Learning at The California Wellness Foundation.
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