“Change is now our constant companion and we can choose to be creative in our response to it, approaching it as an opportunity in partnership with each other.”
That was the message delivered by the Charities Review Council at their annual forum, “Disruptive Philanthropy”, held on September 30th at the University of St Thomas. Before that theme was elaborated in that quote from Executive Director Kris Kewitsch, however, the entire event was a demonstration of how disruptive change is not only inevitable but beneficial.
“In order to truly embrace change, we need to be willing to listen more, be vulnerable and transparent, and even be uncomfortable at times,” Kewisch elaborated. “The key is to build relationships built on trust and understanding.”
In the past the event was a passive luncheon with a speaker presenting and answering questions. This forum opened with a brainstorming session where participants shared their biggest challenges and worked together to develop new solutions and share experiences among them.
Some of the topics they tackled were fundamental to the operation of a non-profit. One participant spoke of the need to to collaborate, “But because of silos, territorialism, and competition we can’t bridge the gaps.” The solutions proposed? Humanizing the needs through storytelling and open up the process from the very start for greater transparency.
“That session was extremely dope!” bubbled Neese Parker of Youthprise. “I do design thinking a lot, but this was the first time I saw it be casual but really effective.”
Nausheena Hussain of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Minnesota, agreed. “I started thinking about new action items we need to implement. I’ve been e-mailing members of my team with a lot of new ideas.”
The importance of this change was put forward as a challenge by St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a featured speaker. “Disruptive philanthropy is a challenge to how we do things,” he told the audience. “I’m hoping that all these folks who are smarter than I am can help us figure out better ways to do what needs to be done.”
He made it clear that their mission is bigger than the nonprofit community, too. “City Hall is not the place where disruption is going to come. We count on you to have it come from the outside. When you challenges us and form new partnerships and new relationships we’re doing our job better.”
What is “disruptive change” and why is it so important? The main speaker was Michael Faye of GiveDirectly, an organization that delivers aid to the extremely poor living in Africa. They do it not as projects or shipments of goods, but as direct cash payments to those who need it the most.
“This is about extreme transparency at a local level,” he told the forum. “We’ve found that the transformations come to not just the families who receive the aid but to entire villages.” To him, it’s a matter of trusting those in need to make the decisions they need to survive and improve themselves. “We’ve measured stress and the presence of stress hormones and seen them go down. That’s critically important. Those who are not under stress from poverty have been shown to make better decisions.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, usually because no one is used to the idea that cash payments can form the basis giving. “We have found that the call for directed giving (for a specific reason) comes not from the recipients, but from governments and other aid agencies. It’s simply what they are used to,” he said. “The cost of administering such programs creates overhead and reduces the aid that can be delivered. We’ve found that you can achieve the same results simply by saying that direct aid is for a purpose, like education, and that is what people will tend to spend it on.”
To Faye, giving directly was simply a matter of doing what works best. “Don’t trust me, trust the evidence.”
The approach of transparency and data driven analysis as a way of creating and managing disruptive change runs through all aspects of philanthropy. Darla Kashian of RBC Wealth Management approaches giving as an integral part of a financial portfolio. “We have found that there is no better way to promote inter-generational stability in wealth management than to integrate charitable giving through the entire plan,” she says. “It’s a statement of values that expresses the purpose of the investors and brings clarity to what we are doing.”
Change has also come to the way that foundations manage their endowments as well. Robert H. Scarlett, a Trustee of the Sundance Family Foundation, said that “We have adopted policies that have gradually and thoughtfully moved more of our investments into managed investment funds made up of companies and institutions that are striving to produce market-rate returns while also delivering a longer-term social good.”
The changes initiated by his foundation resonate through the investment world. “Through some of these funds, we also engage in collective shareholder activism – to bring key environmental, social and governance issues to the attention of management and shareholders of the companies we invest in,” he added.
To many of the participants in the forum, disruptive change is much more than something that has to be dealt with – it’s a calling to change the world. Kewisch believes that it is something that drives continuous improvement. “It turns out the synonyms for disruptive don’t necessarily feel good, but if we want different outcomes, we need to be willing to change conversations and actions. Better outcomes will occur if we all participate actively in disrupting the system.”
Scarlett agrees, adding, “The worldwide total of all philanthropy is so tiny, when compared with the need for change, I truly believe that foundations should get the facts together, aggressively challenge the established order, and engage in ‘purposeful disruption’.”
How exactly can that be achieved? Getting together to create innovation is the key. For Kewisch, “(The forum) was what could be described as a crescendo in the shift we’re making at Charities Review Council. We are moving from a siloed approach of helping donors and nonprofits to creating spaces, places and tools that support an authentic relationship between them.”
In a world that is in constant flux this approach energized the participants to not only embrace disruptive change but to become agents promoting it. We can expect many more disruptive and fundamental changes in philanthropy in the future.