Random Reflections By A New Author

Monday, May 24, 2010

By Jeffrey R. Solomon
President, The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies

I recently heard the esteemed Israeli author, Amos Oz, remind us that when we dream we dream of perfection—whether of a person, an experience, or a country. Reality never gives us that same perfection. Since Charles Bronfman and I wrote The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan, we’ve been in a dozen states talking to numerous audiences, professional and lay, with serious interest in philanthropy. The give and take with these audiences provides a wonderful mirror to reflect upon some of the issues and challenges of the field. As with so many aspects of life, I am blessed from what I learn from these encounters and how these lessons inform my practice.

The first reflection is generated by the consistent head bobbing when discussing transparency and the “celebration” of noble failure. Both in the book and on the road, we are most comfortable talking about the Philanthropies’ big blunders. I am fortunate to work with a Chair who does not flinch from these admissions. As we tell the story of our biggest blunder and how the lessons we learned from that led to our most scalable success, audiences look like the bobbleheads in the back of a Chevy. There is consistent engagement on evaluating mistakes; creating an environment where we in the field can both acknowledge and learn from those mistakes, while encouraging our nonprofit partners and grantees to be more reflective practitioners by being more transparent and operating in a learning organizational framework. This engagement leads to a more mature, nuanced look at impact, taking it from the realm of the mechanical to the realm of living performance improvement.

A second area of intense audience engagement is around the tools we use to take spiritual, generalized “do-gooder” instincts and hone them into a strategy, a brand, a sense of identity that focuses on results while maintaining the engagement of one’s soul. People want to KNOW that they are making a difference while they FEEL satisfaction in so doing. Our challenge is to help philanthropists find both voices. When we do, they become more engaged and more generous. Audiences seem to resonate with this duality. We all need more and better tools aimed at engaging living donors while they are developing their (hopefully) lifelong philanthropic habits.

Third, I don’t think we in the field are harsh enough about the inefficiencies on the giving side. I find that audiences resonate with my raising the question of why there needs to be 45,000 private foundations with assets under $1,000,000 when donor-advised funds or supporting organizational structures could achieve the same purpose at a far lower administrative cost. I suspect the auditing and filing costs alone for these foundations could result in more than $350,000,000 in new grants. We have not done a good enough job in communicating to persons of wealth the many and varied alternative structures that could provide them with the infrastructure for their good intentions. We should.

Finally, there are endless questions about the generational issues of philanthropy. Most of us don’t recognize that we are the first people to experience four generations over the age of 21 at the workplace, each with the unique characteristics of the collective experience of their demographic. Whether the traditionalists, the boomers, Generation X, or Generation Y/Millennials, there is a healthy and serious engagement about power and age in philanthropy. There is the inevitable nervous laugh when I suggest that dysfunctional families can’t resolve their dysfunction around the family foundation table, or when I tell the story of the daughter invited to join the foundation board receiving text messages from her father telling her how to vote during a meeting. We need to be more serious in engaging the generations, including honestly dealing with the inevitable issues of power and money.

We are very lucky to be practicing our craft at a time when information becomes cheaper everyday, communications constantly become easier, and the distance between needs and resources can be digitally bridged to increase awareness and set the tone for repairing the world.

Jeffrey Solomon is the President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. A widely recognized expert on philanthropy, he has written more than eighty articles on the subject for professional and popular audiences, and has taught it at New York University. Mr. Solomon has served on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Council on Foundations, where he chaired the Committee on Ethics and Practice; been Chief Operating Officer of the United Jewish Appeal Federation in New York; and is a founding trustee of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. At ACBP, he coordinated the Gift of New York, an effort to ease the suffering of the families of those killed in the attack on the World Trade Center by offering them free access to the city’s cultural, sports, and entertainment resources.

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