Most Funders Can’t Wave a Magic Wand

Funders face enormous pressures. Many people expect them to save the world. I know because I’m guilty of setting those goals for them and challenging them to lead the change. Funders have a unique role and, in many cases, can influence policy, people and how partners work together to save the world.

And yet.

Funders are human. They can get discouraged. Worn out. Jaded. So it was with interest that I read “Curiosity a Catalyst for Personal Renewal, Community Transformation” by Andy Carroll of Exponent Philanthropy. He makes some great points about how foundation staff members can become more engaged with the community to overcome fatigue, and about persisting social issues that we can’t seem to solve. While I agree with Carroll that it is helpful for funders to spend 20% of their time out in the community, and/or taking 12 hours each month to go out and talk with people, I also think it’s important to set expectations. Regardless of with whom the funder is interacting, the other party should know that the goal is simply to listen. Maybe the funder will learn something and a new idea will spark, but there has to be an expectation that the conversation will not necessarily lead to new funding.

I say this because of my past experience. As a “youngster” working at a nonprofit in the late ‘90s, my organization sent me to monthly community meetings. No one told me, but I eventually figured out that the reason I attended these meetings was because they were convened by a funder and led by a local, influential businessman. When I eventually became a nonprofit Executive Director, I prioritized meetings where I knew funders would be present – even if I didn’t have anything substantive to add to the conversation (which is embarrassing to admit!). Thus, as funders go out and about in the community, it’s important for them to explicitly set expectations. And, at the same time, it’s important for nonprofit representatives and other stakeholders who have “skin in the game” to remember that funders often have limited resources, and can’t wave a magic wand to solve all the world’s problems. In fact, they probably hear more about all of the problems then the rest of us, and likely feel unable to do as much as they want. That can be overwhelming, frustrating and draining. So let’s go easy on them, and try a more collaborative approach. Then we just might make some significant progress.

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