New Trends in Philanthropy?

September 13, 2011 //

By John Esterle

Paul Connolly has contributed a thoughtful post examining what he calls the humanistic and technocratic approaches to philanthropy. He makes the case that rather than argue which approach leads to better results, funders might be wise to consider adopting a balanced perspective that combines the strengths of each. Certainly, he argues, there is a need for more dialogue within philanthropy about these different approaches as the “dynamic ying yang-style tension between them is rich territory that has not been fully mined.”

A central question for TWI has always been how does the interplay of thinking and feeling, cognition and emotion, affect our decisions and actions. So, it resonates when Connolly states that “philanthropy must heed a growing body of research across the neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics fields that confirm the importance of synthesizing logic and instinct, head and heart, linearity and serendipity.” I also like that he ends his reflection with a call that “to advance as a field, more oxymoronic thinking and action is required — including rigorous values, poignant data, strategic intuition, deliberate improvisation, soulful strategy, rational exuberance, and immeasurable outcomes.” We often talk about how dialogue can help us to creatively explore paradoxes, or polarities, or tensions. I think oxymoronic thinking can be added to the list.

Dialogue can also help us cultivate empathy, something that Grantmakers for Effective Organizations describes in their new report as “the missing link” in philanthropy. I often talk about the idea that building relationships should be seen as a measure of impact within philanthropy, so I admire GEO for prominently raising the importance of empathy and the need for funders to build relationships with grantees. It may seem a no-brainer to some to talk about the importance of empathy and relationships, but as GEO points out:

  • “Many of the grantmakers we talked to in our research for this publication acknowledged that their organizations are works in progress when it comes to connecting with people outside their office walls in deeper and more authentic ways.”


  • “The bottom line: When it comes to operating with a high level of empathy, philanthropy plainly isn’t there yet. Few foundations are truly empathic in the way they operate, and when they are it is often by chance.”

If you check out their
“What We Are Reading” page, you’ll see that The Compton Foundation is one foundation that is engaging in the questions and processes that both Connolly and GEO highlight. You’ll also see that they mention Cynthia Chavez and Hugh Vasquez’s article about The Conversation Lab, a continuing experiment we’re involved with that also resonates with GEO’s report. If you scroll to the end, you’ll find Fire by Judy Brown, a poem that Compton finds inspiring — as do we at TWI. Indeed, I read the poem at the opening of our last retreat.

There are lots of sparks of conversation right now about doing philanthropy differently. This is not a new development, but it does seem to be a trend that is gathering momentum. Perhaps with more dialogue, more oxymoronic thinking, more empathy, we can build and expand the relationships that will turn those sparks into flames.


  1. Paul VanDeCarr on September 14, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Thanks for this post, John. Funny, empathy is such a squishy, soft quality — but so essential! I'm glad GEO did the report, and that you've explored it here… I'm also reminded of how Pres. Obama mentioned, upon nominating Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, that empathy was a key quality for justices. And how he got ridiculed for it by the right. As in the law, so it is in philanthropy, taking different perspectives is crucial. The GEO report makes a good case for empathy, and nicely identifies concrete steps to make it manifest.

  2. The Whitman Institute on September 16, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Thanks, Paul.

    Good point about what happened to Obama when he publicly talked about the value of empathy. It's frustrating how persistent the "soft" and "hard" skills framing is, which is why the GEO report and posts like Connolly's are refreshing.

    Thanks again for commenting!