When Anger is the Logical Choice
How do we make challenging critiques within philanthropy in a way that people can hear?
That question came up strongly this week when I read a couple of blog posts from Jake Hayman of the Social Investment Consultancy, starting with “Not Fit for Purpose: Why I’m Done with the Foundation World.” His bracing list of ten things foundations do that they shouldn’t (actually 19 by the time he’s done) resonated with me. What really struck me though was not the points he was raising but how he was raising them.
A few that stuck with me are:
“I’ve been working for too long with people trying to achieve great things for the world and watching them degrade themselves at the feet of foundations whose structures turn brilliant thinkers into fundraisers and who reduce a highly complex world into amateur box-ticking. I’m done.”
“It’s soul destroying, wasteful, embarrassing and I’ve been a part of it for too long. I’m part of the problem.”
“My personal view after a decade sweating in this sector is that the foundation world is not fit for purpose and that the relationships between various stakeholders is not an effective one. In many cases and indeed in my experience, it is completely false and based on an incentive structure that does not best serve our communal mission.”
While not hiding his anger and frustration, he recognized that there are many foundations doing great work. He also humbly acknowledged that nothing he was saying was new and that others have made his points more eloquently and effectively. Taken together, I found his tone refreshing and compelling. It certainly seemed to have gotten people’s attention and had found at least one new reader for his blog!
When I went back to explore his site I was surprised then to see he had followed up his post with an apology.
Here’s a sample:
“I apologize. The blog was obnoxious. For 10 years I watched people smarter than me saying the same thing calmly and eloquently and not getting heard, so I pushed it.”
“I apologize that people trying to do the right thing felt attacked as that’s not a good thing to do and I apologize that it did not give more space to recognize all the amazing practice out there, including from those foundations that I have been lucky enough to partner with personally on projects.”
“The intention was to get more people thinking about how to do things the right way. It was done obnoxiously. I apologize.”
“I’ve had a lot of nice responses, a lot of respectful disagreement and some hideous bile that made me cry. Can we call it even?”
I agreed with the comments that said he had nothing to apologize for. I also empathize with why he wrote in the voice he did. The glacial pace of change within philanthropy, while it seeks to accelerate change in the world, is somewhat mind-boggling. I’m currently writing a series that explores what holds foundations back from giving unrestricted funds.
I also think it’s important that as a field philanthropy find ways to allow the very real anger and frustration many feel about the status quo to be brought to the table – without getting immediately defensive.
By not doing so, the field is missing out on crucial feedback and data from those we support. Data that might inject some sense of urgency for change within a field notable for its lack of it.
The moments when dialogue really comes alive, when our thinking is stretched and our understanding broadened, is when tension is surfaced and creatively and empathically explored. So, I thank Jake Hayman for surfacing the tensions many feel.
And while I don’t think he needed a follow-up post to apologize, I do appreciate the invitation he ends with:
“I know there are already people who have done and are doing thinking about these topics but it looks there’s a real appetite for more. If anyone want to convene some smart people on this I, a) promise not to come and b) will happily pay for the sandwiches.”
There does seem to be a real appetite out there – not just to talk about how to do things differently – but to also DO things together differently. How do we best start creatively exploring the tensions involved with doing that?