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My New Years Resolution for Philanthropy

January 10, 2013

By Terri Lee Freeman

President, The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region

2013!!  It almost doesn’t seem possible.  In fact, I can remember, like it was yesterday, the mad dash to get everything in order in preparation for the “big Y2K” issues that were certain to cripple most business systems.  Well, that was then and this is now.  And I think those of us that count ourselves as philanthropists or have the honor of working in philanthropy have much to be proud of.  A few examples: Good work has been done to increase access to quality healthcare to those without adequate health insurance.  Environmental efforts have seen real progress in our area waterways.  Efforts to improve the delivery of education to young people in our region abound.  We now understand that education is a system that must be coordinated from cradle to career.  And the recent federal Department of Education award of Promise Neighborhood funds that went out to the Parkside/Kenilworth community in Ward 7 and the Langley Park communities (nearing over $2 million in grants) emphasizes the necessity of viewing education on a continuum.  Additional progress continues in the workforce development arena, with more individual donors and institutional funders investing in this critical area.  Increased advocacy in our region through coordinated anti-poverty and safety-net campaigns has led to the preservation of significant public funds for the safety-net.

Even with the significant investment of financial and human resources in these and other areas of philanthropic interest, there is much yet to be done.  So I’d like to suggest three resolutions for philanthropy in 2013:

3) Come together.  No man/woman/organization is an island.  Understand that everyone who invests in this community wants the best for the community.  Recognize that none of us, individually have the necessary financial resources to “fix” the issues presented in our region.  However, the many can do more than the few…if we work together.  There is room for everyone at the table and everyone can contribute.  We know the issues that we invest in are complex and have multiple layers of contributing factors.  For example, education is about the classroom, but it is also about the home, the health and wellness of the student, and the educational policy environment administrators and others must work within.  My point here is more heads are better than one, and more coordinated investments will yield better results.

2) Listen to the people we seek to serve (Not about us without us).  We can all be better partners to the nonprofit organizations we want to assist and the people we want to serve.  All of us want to be informed as we do this work so we read the latest reports by industry experts and get excited about what the possibilities are for our region. But how often do we listen to the people our investments will actually impact?  If we want our investments to be lasting, we must be inclusive of the communities and customers that are the end user.  No one wants to feel as though they are a guinea pig and many of the communities in our region have historically been great places for experiment, thus creating an environment which lacks trust or commitment to change. The best investment strategies are created in collaboration with the people who are directly affected by the issue at hand.

1)   Put some risk back into philanthropy.  I’ve always marveled at the fact that in doing this work we make “bets” on what will and will not have the outcome we hope to achieve.  But over the years, I’ve seen philanthropy become more and more safe.  Everyone wants to invest in the sure bet, but as the saying goes, “no risk, no reward.”  The history of strategic philanthropy is built on taking calculated risks; trying new approaches to get new results.  In my humble opinion safe philanthropy yields the status quo and I think we are all in agreement that needs to change.

As much as I’d like all of philanthropy to adopt these resolutions for 2013, I think it is most important that we, the Community Foundation, look in the mirror.  Are we working as collaboratively as we could?  Are we reaching out to the people in the neighborhoods that are directly affected by our grant decisions?  Are our grant decisions too safe?  Do we have a risk- averse investment environment?

Like most resolutions, our zeal to achieve them wanes as the months go by, but these are too important to take off the front-burner.  So over the year I hope to update you on how well, or not, we are doing at keeping these philanthropic resolutions.  I hope you will join me!

Happy New Year!

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