Philanthropists Are People, Too

By Ken Gordon

You know what the Jewish world needs?

It needs to believe in itself.

That is, Jewish communal professionals must empower themselves to act, speak, and think in brave and interesting ways. It’s a challenging task. Even the most creative staffers and administrators suffer from the nonprofit inferiority complex, an unshakable sense that they just aren’t quite as worthy as those who derive money and power from the for-profit world.

This brand of self-effacing shame is most visible when nonprofit people deal with donors. Communal professionals often – too often – enact a theatre of submission on encountering philanthropists, the people who could make their most cherished ideas come to life, whether it’s via a Letter of Intent or Grant Application or in a face-to-face meeting. What fire our nonprofit heroes possess can get quickly extinguished when confronted by those for whom matters of money are the first order of business.

This kind of thing happens everywhere in the nonprofit world – money, success, and status fracturing the possibility of real funder-worker relationships – and it makes for an unhealthy philanthropic culture. To remedy it, we need to introduce some true respect to our nonprofit world: authentic, two-way respect.

JEDALB has long called on education people to assert themselves; we now must call on funders to change the way they operate. One suspects that truly visionary funders, people who find the idea of being a human checkbook rebarbative, would gladly join a community based on honesty and respect and authentic dialogue. But because this isn’t the way philanthropy has historically operated, we may need to educate donors a bit, and make sure they understand that they are indeed invited to the party.

So what should funders do?

  1. They should consciously strive to treat the people they fund as not just a means to an end. Donors should understand the effect their power and money has on hard-working nonprofit people, and take the time and care to counteract it. They should get to know their grantees, and prospective grantees – and be willing to reveal something of themselves in the process. (JEDLAB is particularly good at allowing people to articulate parts of themselves that are not contained in their official professional personae.) They should write emails to nonprofit workers who blog well. Go get coffee with them. Make themselves known to people who do excellent work. Honest relationships will lead to authentic conversations, better programming, and more effective philanthropy. Getting to learn what nonprofit workers need, and what they aspire to, will help inform how funders should build out their orgs.
  2. They should join the public conversation. An effective 21st century funder does not hide behind boardroom doors. Instead, she enters into the agora, and makes herself accessible. There are many ways to contribute to the shape of public discourse, many communities, online and offline, created to address social and cultural issues. Our funders should not absent themselves from the necessary dialogues. They should blog and tweet and, in general, make themselves intellectually available. Such conversations could help clarify their own philanthropic interests.
  3. They should listen. Humbly. A year of JEDLAB has taught me that good ideas are plentiful, and that they exist in all kinds of places you might not suspect. If a funder only talks to people he hires, or to his friends in his elite socio-economic group, he’s cutting himself off from a world of opinion. A good funder wants to get as close as possible to the people with the best ideas – and it just so happens that many of the best nonprofit ideas reside in places like JEDLAB.

Funders in every area of philanthropy must take a step forward to encounter those who can make their necessary changes in their fields. I have hope that the Next Generation of philanthropists understands the implications of entering into authentic relations with the people who work for, and think for, them. Young, and young-at-heart, funders don’t need to insulate themselves from people with energy and ideas. Just the opposite. They want to engage, to hear what such people really think, to have direct contact, so that they can best be assured that their money is being put to good use. Philanthropy should be a human partnership. And why not – funders are people, too.

Ken Gordon is the Senior Social Media Manager and Content Strategist at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Co-Founder of JEDLAB.