Starting with “Yes” or Getting to “Yes”

Yes!About 25 years ago, the results of a Harvard research project on negotiation techniques were published, in a non-academic format, in “Getting to Yes”. In a tribute to its continuing relevance, the book has continually been available in various formats since. Clearly, lots of us need all the help we can get to make sure that negotiations in which we all engage in so many facets of our lives end up with a positive result for all involved.

The title might well apply to the process of philanthropy decision-making – but for very different reasons. After all, every one of us, I repeat, every one of us, says “no” to many more requests for our charitable support than we can say “yes” to. Having just survived the annual end of year onslaught of on line, postal, telephonic, and in-person requests for funding, I doubt that there are many who would disagree.

Knowing how to say “no” is the critical pre-condition to being a thoughtful and strategic philanthropist. How much money you have or give doesn’t make you a philanthropist but having a decision making strategy does. Since, at least in the United States, philanthropy is a competitive enterprise – everyone is asked to support anything and everything, everyone implicitly makes choices. Do you throw that solicitation away or send something? Do you stop to talk to the on-street petitioner or walk right past? Do you find it difficult to say no to friends and neighbors or are you willing to incur their disappointment? We all make choices. Most foundations, and a growing number of individuals think it through ahead of time and have a pre-thought rationale for our responses.

Starting with “no” and getting to “yes” is the traditional grantmaking approach to philanthropy. It is the only possible approach if one assumes a reactive and responsive strategy. Others ask, we answer. Oh, we may have a sophisticated and carefully articulated strategy for how we answer, but it is still an answer to someone else’s request. Indeed when we teach funders, or advise foundations and philanthropists, we know that what they need to know, at least start with, is an understanding of how to make decisions in the face of an overwhelming number of requests and a very lengthy list of objective and subjective variables to consider as they choose.

However, an entirely different approach characterizes newer trends in philanthropy. Instead of being reactive, it starts with a commitment to solve a problem, address a need, make a difference. For the last 10-15 years, we have followed an ever-expanding list of alternative approaches to how to do philanthropy – venture philanthropy, impact investing, hybrid models, scaling, incubator hubs… to merely scratch the surface. What characterizes all of these, and their many permutations, is that the funders do not start reactively, but pro-actively identify areas that can, should, and must be addressed. Persistent prison recidivism, expanding homelessness, human trafficking, global warming, academic illiteracy, food insecurity, childhood diseases… If there is one characteristic of these challenges is that they reflect systemic fragilities which can never be resolved by a single funder, a single sector, a single nation or community, or a short-term perspective. The funders in our new era start with a self-imposed mandate to address and redress these kinds of problems. They start with a commitment to use their resources – the challenge, albeit not a small one, is to determine how to use the full quiver of resources to begin to make a lasting difference that matters. The motivation of the new philanthropy is not the noblesse oblige of a prior era – “I made it, I need to give back”. Rather the motivation is “the world is screwed up. I have an obligation to not just provide palliatives, nor just help enable cures, but to change underlying conditions which allow suffering to take place. “Of course there must be political advocacy. Of course there must be inter-sector and international collaborations. Of course there will be failures. Of course there must be creative and innovative way of using resources. What is not acceptable is business as usual.

I suspect that some of you will say: how can you say that the person who established a legacy foundation is not committed to giving money away? And you would be right. But the process of doing so is quite different than the new philanthropy. Any of us who have lived in the traditional foundation world know that the days are filled with “no.” The seekers and the granters have to work through a lot of no’s to get to a yes.

But if one is supporting big picture change, the start is “yes, something must be done. Let’s find the best ways to get there – even if some fail.” For most of the newer approaches, funders are less likely to use an open rfp process, wait for organizations to come to them, rely on “proven” or standard techniques, and require a single model of funding. Rather, new funders will take initiatives, convene collaborators, challenge accepted orthodoxies, and welcome new funding models. To be sure, the process of winnowing, fine tuning, focusing, defining involves a lot of decision making. But, those are details [not trivial ones, but still details]. The starting point is a “yes” and the end point we be a “yes.”

From where I sit, I see a good deal of dynamic tension between the two approaches, and those who espouse them. Of course, there is plenty of room for, and need for, both. Nevertheless, the New Philanthropy, the one that defines the emergent trends of this century, is all based on a mentality that says that Change is inevitable. And systemic change is mandatory.

The challenge, then, for those in the “new philanthropy” space is not whether to start with “yes” but to learn which “yes” is merely a fad, and which “yes” is transformative. Not so easy.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.