On a fairly regular basis the topic of “democratizing philanthropy” emerges in the world of foundations around America. For placed-based funders such as community foundations, and there are hundreds of accredited foundations (meaning they have met National Standards) throughout America, this talk can have much more meaning and relevance.
However, talk and practice, or reality, often don’t align when it comes to activating the philosophy behind democratizing philanthropy. In my view, too many foundations have very restricted and limited small groups of people and/or grantmaking committees who must have some special or magical talents for giving away money.
While we could debate the meaning, definition and interpretation of what it means to democratize philanthropy, let me just give you real examples of what it means to the Community Foundation of St. Clair County and how for years we’ve been trying to put our words into action.
This month we renewed a November tradition of “Thankful Thursdays”, whereby we select different people and stakeholders to experience the joy of philanthropy by giving away our money. For each of the first three Thursdays in November we’ve effectively empowered small grantmaking committees to award grants based on their own passions.
We were also an early adopter to large giving circles, which here in our region take the form of either our “100 Women” or “100 Men” events, or most recently, our Minority Philanthropy Initiative. These events are open to everyone and can draw hundreds of people who pool their gifts for just one night to make impactful grants. And they do so without any special training or orientation to philanthropy.
In our daily business of philanthropy we don’t believe in having any one board or committee empowered to approve our grants. We are highly decentralized throughout our region with multiple committees and groups who are all empowered to approve grants. Our actual board of directors approves very few grants on an annual basis, because each year they delegate that authority to numerous other groups of people; from our Blue Water Arts Committee, to our community funds in Marysville, Algonac/Clay and St. Clair, to field of interest funds and scholarship funds.
To achieve this kind of philosophy means to let go of power. Let go of authority. We are not experts in grantmaking, despite some foundations making that claim. We should strive to be experts at engaging as many people as possible in philanthropy, and empowering them to make their own decisions without additional layers of staff and board approval.
The greatest reward in my career hasn’t come from what I’ve done, or my board has done, but from what “we’ve” done. So I encourage more foundations to take to heart the concept of letting go of power and authority and democratizing philanthropy.