An environmental program officer on the future of philanthropy

Steve Fisch
Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, shares new research on the future of philanthropy at the Hewlett Foundation's 50th anniversary symposium.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of symposium reflections.

As someone who has worked on energy and climate for 25 years, one of the most heartening news to come out of the Hewlett Foundation’s 50th anniversary symposium was a new finding about what foundation presidents care about.

Research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy reveals that over 200 foundation presidents think economic inequality and climate change are the two biggest issues philanthropy should address.

Climate change is by far the biggest problem of our time and if we do not address it, many of the other problems we seek to address will get much worse. If the average temperature of Earth’s surface continues to rise, food security, economic development, immigration, national security, ecosystem integrity, and infrastructures could be severely affected.

If we are to succeed in combating climate change, communities have to come around to see mitigation as in their best interest. This brings up another interesting finding from the CEP research – namely, that survey of foundation leaders think philanthropy is not living up to its potential.

So what can we do?

In the climate field, advocates such as myself have not always done a good job. My first impulse is to “tell” others why they should care, instead of “listening” to what their actual concerns are. I have been too quick to recommend the obvious solutions, rather than be open to solutions that fit the context. Sometimes, especially in a crisis, it is better to ask questions first and let others lead.

We can also do more to empower grantees and intermediaries. The Hewlett Foundation is good about providing the kind of grants, like general operating support, that show trust in grantees. When we develop strategies around climate, we need to work more as connectors to identify the mavens who can validate the compelling strategies from the field.

The connecting role is very important. Foundation program officers do not need to create the newest or “bestest” strategy. We need to know the field well enough to know who is doing good work and is capable of sound strategy. We need to be a part of the connective tissue that brings together the best in the field.

Perhaps the key to inter-foundation collaboration is checking your own and your organization’s ego. Every foundation has great ideas as well as organizational imperatives. Hewlett Foundation is one of the larger funders in the climate field and our board believes collaboration is critical for success. This gives us the freedom to help other foundation’s staff create aligned climate programs that fit parameters of their institutional priorities.

There is a lot more that we can do, and the CEP report offers illuminating insights. Despite all the challenges, I’m hopeful that the philanthropic field can reach its potential in the future.

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