A Message from CEO Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

Thursday, March 24, 2022

A Message from CEO Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

adrienne maree brown, author of Holding Change The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, writes about change and what it takes to hold change in an organization. She notes that “Adaptation is not about long term or structural change in a creature or system to account for a need for survival…It’s about shaping change and letting changes make us stronger as individual and collective bodies.” I love this emphasis not on survival but on growing stronger, together. And it resonates deeply with another framework we’ve been using frequently at Philanthropy New York as we navigate change – the concept of getting clear on our purpose – our reason for being. Anne Wallestad of BoardSource notes that grounding ourselves in purpose often requires that we pause to reframe the questions we ask and de-center the organization itself in favor of its reasons for being. In other words, Anne says, it means asking: “what is best for the desired social outcome we seek,” rather than “what is good for the organization?” 

Purpose as Compass

Reorienting to purpose was particularly present when Philanthropy New York’s Policy team wrestled with a decision over which government relations consultant to hire to help PNY build engagement with the new City administration. This work represents a significant investment of money, time, and energy for PNY, and we recognized a need to be very clear on what we were asking of the firm we hired and how, ultimately, this work would help us achieve our vision of philanthropic institutions working together to build a more equitable, sustainable, and democratic society. So, before we could make a choice, we paused to engage our partner nonprofit associations in a moment of collaborative brainstorming to align our work with the visions they have for New York City’s nonprofits and the people who work in those nonprofits. If we had framed the guiding question, while scoping the policy work, as “what’s best for our organization?” we could hire a firm that would elevate PNY’s status, or simply get us meetings with key government decision-makers. But by focusing on PNY’s ultimate purpose, we landed on a firm that approached the work with curiosity, an orientation toward philanthropic and nonprofit collaboration, and an intention to build a collective push for a more racially equitable and just nonprofit sector. 

It is no accident that “purpose” - as a grounding element in philanthropic leadership - has been on our minds at Philanthropy New York. At the start of our Strategic Direction process, we shared Anne Wallestad’s article, The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership, with our board to inform the conversation. And, the concept of purpose has been present as we crafted our annual slate of programs and network events. In January, we were fortunate to host Anne in conversation with Jason McGill at our CEO and Trustee gathering. Together, they unpacked the assumptions and conventional wisdom that often shape foundation board governance. Anne asked attendees to rethink the current paradigm of board leadership, in which organization is often used as a proxy for purpose. She also encouraged an intentional centering of equity as boards think about their strategies. She invited the Trustees and CEOs in attendance to think about a common question often asked in the boardroom: “How will this strategy advance our organization and its mission.” And then, she re-phrased the question to be in service to purpose, asking “How could our strategy reinforce systemic inequities, and what are we willing to do to avoid it?” 

Curiosity as a Pathway to Change

I don’t know about you, but hearing that actions I’ve taken in service to Philanthropy New York's mission could reinforce inequity, prompts a certain amount of defensiveness. What Anne and Jason shared could be difficult for any of us to hear. We are program officers who joined foundations to strengthen the sector, trustees who serve as volunteers, and leaders who want to be accountable to the collective calls for power shifts within the philanthropic sector. A purpose-driven approach might ask us to question the established way we’ve always done things and slow the pace of decision-making. This can feel frustrating in a sector that focuses a great deal on outcomes. Anne and Jason suggested a powerful tool to support these efforts: curiosity. They suggest that a posture of curiosity and self-compassion — not defensiveness — will help us surface new questions and acknowledge the ways that our established practices might not align with our purpose. That, after all, is what PNY’s value of learning asks of us. 

In fact, our 2021 Member Engagement Survey* showed that many of you are embracing curiosity in your leadership: over three-fourths of respondents indicated that you are asking questions you had not thought to ask as a result of being in community at Philanthropy New York. You are asking questions that you didn’t even know were questions! How exciting to know that we are a peer community that sparks curiosity and that trusts each other to let go of the need to have all the answers. In the spirit of curiosity, I would love to know what some of those questions are. I invite you to connect with me, or any member of the Philanthropy New York team, to let us know how we can support your learning, your leadership, and your connection to the PNY community. And, if you are curious to learn more about how grounding in purpose can serve as a compass in your work, join us at our Annual Meeting this May!

* Thank you to those of you who participated in our Member Engagement Survey last year! Your insights help to shape and inform our work with this community and our new Strategic Direction. 

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