Friday, October 26, 2007

Hospitality, History and the Philanthropic Journey

Dear reader - below is a thought piece that attempts to connect a collection of recent thoughts and experiences. I hope you will read it in the spirit in which it meanders. - RMS

Philanthropy's Odyssey

If you remember your college English coursework, you will remember that The Odyssey - that classic story of the great journey home - featured many iconic images and themes. Odysseus and his men travelled the wine-red sea, facing many dangerous challenges along the way. But along with monsters and other threats, their journey was marked by hospitality at many ports - including hospitality shown by his wife, Penelope, toward the invasive suitors who pursued her to her dismay.

Hospitality, it seems to me is a key part of philanthropy. Treating "the stranger" and "the other" not only with tolerance, but with graciousness, warmth, and compassion, is a base-line for offering one's own resources to people in need who we do not know, and whom we may never know. This is a key theme in Sermon on the Mount - perhaps the closest Jesus comes to offering a living definition of philanthropy in the text.

Hospitality is Key to Philanthropy

All kinds of philanthropic endeavors rely upon hospitality. Peace negotiations, coalition-building, collaboration, community problem-solving. Door-knocking for organizing or fundraising campaigns. If no one ever answered their doors and let their neighbors in, we would have no community organizations, block associations, or religious congregations. Hospitality relies about human beings who trust one another even though they do not know one another enough to have good reason to trust one another. Why does this work? A social context based on social capital. The culture, community, political and economic context in which we are raised defines the rules of hospitality by which we operate. A simple example: in some communities, residents feel comfortable leaving their front doors unlocked. In other places this is definitely not normal.

This fall I have been doing a fall mini-journey around the country on behalf of EPIP - attending and presenting at conferences and EPIP chapter events. I enjoy the journey to conferences and meetings in ports - some strange to me, some now familiar. I don't get to cross too many wine-red seas. But I am always grateful for the hospitality shown me.

For example, I was in Ithaca, NY, for the Upstate New York Funders Conference, where EPIP was invited to lead a special session for young and new grantmakers (more on the session later). At the tail-end of the host event reception at a great local museum, I was talking with several other conference attendees whom I had just met, and they invited me out to dinner with them! Since I was attending the conference on my own and they were friendly and interesting, I jumped at the opportunity. It's a good thing they were so hospitable - I had missed the bus back to Cornell's Statler Hotel, and had no transportation of my own.

We drove around town and found a restaurant that was still open - apparently I am spoiled by the 24 hour nature of New York City. We enjoyed wine, Italian food and good conversation, and closed the place down. (Even though we were literally the last customers in the place, the wait staff did not rush us, or even indicate that they could be going home to sleep if we would just go already. In addition to my hosts, the wait staff were hospitable.)

All during my travel this month, I have been engrossed in a new philanthropy book called The Billionaire Who Wasn't, a page-turner biography about Charles Feeney, the previously-anonymous donor behind The Atlantic Philanthropies. Note: I have not completed the book at the time of this post, so I am not offering a complete review here.

As it turns out, Ithaca, Cornell and the Statler Hotel are a central part of the story -- Feeney went to college here and studied hotel management. The GI Bill and Cornell gave him his chance, and he has seen fit to give back to the University. He helped to re-build the hotel and the hotel management school where we had our philanthropy conference. In fact, Mr Feeney has given his Alma mater, Cornell University, more than $600 million, dwarfing all other donations from a single alumnus to an American university. He has championed higher education around the world, including in Ireland and South Africa. This support hits home for me too; The Atlantic Philanthropies funded the graduate program on philanthropy that I attended at Indiana University - another place where I benefited from world-famous (and very real) Hoosier Hospitality.

So here I was - staying in the hotel that Feeney built, participating in a conference of local foundations - that included some folks who used to anonymously work at the Atlantic offices in Ithaca -- and offering a session for people brand new to philanthropy. It was a fascinating and somewhat mind-twisting experience.

So somehow my journey, the journeys of the philanthropoids and philanthropists at the conference, the now-revealed story of Mr. Feeney, are all intimately intertwined in unfolding journey of philanthropy and hospitality - locally in New York, and around the world.

Feeney, like Odysseus, spent years traversing the globe, building a network of duty-free business at airports and downtowns in ports near and far. His fortune was built on offering tax-free liquor and other goods to travelers, putting a new light on the notion of the wine-red sea, perhaps? [As it turned out, one of the brand-new trustees who attended my session, worked for a donor who made his money selling liquor, and made his employee a primary steward of his philanthropic largess, and charged him with essentially creating the foundation. Another strange coincidence?] Like Odysseus, Feeney's team was loyal, although they had their internal conflicts, which are presented frankly in the book. Like Odysseus, when he arrived back home disguised so as to defeat the suitors through strategy, Feeney contributed under the disguise of anonymity until he felt the time was right to reveal himself.

His motivation for this secrecy seems to have been primarily a sense of humility. He did not wish "to blow his own horn." He was influenced by thinkers and philanthropists who believed anonymous giving was one of the highest forms, and who encouraged donors to give their resources away while alive. When in 1984 he signed over his fortune to the foundation (except for sums set aside for his wife and children) he broke the news to his children and gave them each a copy of Andrew Carnegie's essay on wealth, written in 1889.

Know Much About History?

It is interesting to read about a donor who is influenced as much by the literature of philanthropic studies as he is by the life experiences that shaped his immediate experiences. In fact, Joel J. Orosz, founder of EPIP's partner organization, The Grantmaking School, recently published an essay in the Chronicle of Philanthropy called Good Grantmaking Requires Expertise. In the article, Joel writes

"Far too many newcomers to philanthropy behave as if philanthropic history began the moment they stepped across the threshold of their foundation. They are certain that past foundation efforts have been mediocre at best and have little of value to teach them...

Foundation leaders create their own obstacles to effectiveness... chiefly by ignoring the lessons of history, slighting the value of experience, denigrating the importance of training in grant making, and denying the importance of professional associations that can make them more effective by helping them collaborate to solve problems that no single institution can tackle on its own."
Diana Sieger, the President of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (in the community where The Grantmaking School is based) writes to support Orosz' assertions on her blog.

It is clear that Feeney and his key advisers had studied the history of philanthropic ideas and practices, and that it had a dramatic impact on the management and approach of his philanthropy.

I am in general agreement with Joel. In fact, I think Joel's article might be a rallying cry for EPIP members to rally around!

There is clearly an either-or dichotomy in the discourse about "new vs. old philanthropy" - one is either defending the status quo, as some comments on the Chronicle website say - or throwing it all out to start fresh. In fact, the very term "new philanthropy" makes Joel's point. Without knowing history, the advocates of bringing business values to the practice philanthropy remain unaware that this was a major trend at the start of the century - the 20th Century that is. Back then it was called Scientific Charity, and it was all about how to bring the efficiencies of the manufacturing age into social work and charitable efforts.

This is not a particularly healthy dichotomy-based debate. We ought to begin talking about what "traditional" philanthropy can learn from "venture philanthropy" and vice-versa. We ought to be talking about the benefits of becoming a profession - including the value of having a strong recruitment, training and education functions in our field.

In my experience, emerging grantmakers are not stuck in an either-or framework. EPIP's members clearly want to learn from the past, while bringing fresh ideas, energy, and innovation to the table. We believe in taking philanthropy seriously, and acting professionally; at the same time, we think it is important to welcome new - and sometimes less experiences - voices to the philanthropic table, and not taking ourselves too seriously all the time.

To to the point: in a survey this summer by the North Carolina Emerging Leaders Working Group (a group of emerging practitioners affiliated with the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers and supported by EPIP), a majority of emerging foundation staffers in the state said that "mentoring from experienced professionals" was the professional development option that would be most helpful to them.

As a field, we ought to be working to make the foundation community itself hospitable to new and old neighbors alike - an inter-generational community, if you will. We ought to welcome strangers, whose ideas we do not yet understand. In that kind of environment, perhaps newcomers would feel comfortable enough to seek out knowledge from those who are all ready far along on their own philanthropic journeys.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Thank you for this thoughtful and concise reflection on the world of non profits and philanthropy. It was enlightening and inspiring