Why I Wear a Mickey Mouse Watch and the Importance of Strategic Digitization in Philanthropy

By Maxyne Finkelstein

Over the years I have been asked why my signature watch is the original Mickey Mouse. As my watch broke this week, I briefly considered replacing it with something more upscale like the newest Apple version. That decision brought me to think about how the world we live and work in has digitized and upgraded. I focused on whether these upgrades are what should be leading us or are there basic issues that require reflection before continuing on this path as we plan for re-entry and renewal in 2021.

As the challenges and constraints of Covid continue, trends in philanthropy have swung in various directions. Funding organizations, individual donors and Foundations have stepped into previously unknown voids and with confidence and courage and have created results at unexpected speed. Others have taken a high- risk stance and have used this time to promote and address issues that have long been unidentified or neglected.

Both approaches are necessary and good; what is at times less positive is how both organizations and funders are increasingly using a digital voice as a tool for self congratulations and to emphasize the value of what they do alone rather than focusing on collaboration for the greater good. Access to media has created a competitive “me” driven focus in a sector which places high value on the “we” in order to fulfill a greater mission. At times, the echo of these voices become an expression of a plea for validation rather than a celebration of tangible accomplishment.

Countless webinars and virtual fundraising events have focused on a world where everyone has their own cable channel. “Entertainment” by NGO has become a reality. What is missing is the philanthropic channel which focuses on the underpinnings of the value of the sector and the overall big picture of what is additive and needed in the current and upcoming environments. The essence of civil society lies in the value of the whole which builds on its parts; what does the whole mean today as we continue to operate in separate silos protected by digital barriers symbolized by the faces in frames that we look at every day on Zoom?

Living in a digital environment with limited physical human contact disconnects us from the other and point us in the direction of frequently looking to ourselves both literally (on the camera) and symbolically as we listen to our voice more. This parliament of one, can result in less connection and consideration of the other. On- line it is easier to ignore, multitask, speak over others, present a perfect picture of an imperfect situation or exaggerate. Time for questions and debate are limited, forums are exquisitely curated for fear of looking less than perfect.

Wonderful work has been done during the past 9 months that amplifies the significant value of both funders and organizations that serve community needs. Digitization has offered amazing and unexpected opportunities for learning and gathering. Nonprofit service organizations and funders must be as technologically advanced as those in the private sector in order to thrive. At the same time, it is incumbent for each of us to consider that the mission of this sector may require a public face that differentiates from the consumer market which is driven largely by market goals.

During these months when easy gathering has been available, the sector has not fully maximized the opportunity to create change related to reducing redundancies, creating economies of scale and bringing bold new long-lasting ideas forward to amplify the sector. There has no doubt been some shining stars and these models should be championed. Instead, we see the relative ease in which the sector has adopted a market driven mindset as the tools to move in that direction are increasingly available. Less intention in either convening or funding is not going to bring us to a better place long term even if most organizations survive this crisis on their own. The collective capacity is so much greater than what exists, and this period has demonstrated that with thought and strategy we can do so much more together than we have in the past.

So why do I wear a Mickey Mouse watch and what does it have to do with concerns about how the sector is functioning? I was given my first Mickey Mouse watch by my father as a young child and over the years he gave me a few upgraded versions, but I always valued the first watch the most. It was simple and taught me to tell time. When he passed away that first watch was buried with him and I continued to wear newer versions with the same happy face. I am grounded by looking at this simple watch, it helps me to understand that I don’t need anything more elaborate or sophisticated to be worthy and that the fundamentals of what I am doing everyday should create an added value and bring a little joy.

Maxyne Finkelstein is President, Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation.