Philanthropy, Action and the Best of Intentions

August 20, 2013

What insecurities play a role in your nonprofit or philanthropic work?

Here’s one of mine: I never feel like my cup of knowledge is full enough. With so many access points to information—traditional media outlets, word of mouth, social media, years of collective experience from others, new ideas transmitted in thousands of ways—how can I make sure what I’m doing will result in the most good? Even more critical, that my actions will not inadvertently hurt someone?

Last Thursday on my way home from work, I nearly caused an accident while breaking hard to avoid hitting a dog making its way across US 41. I turned around, parked nearby and got out of my car with the plan of coaxing the dog across the street at the right time. I didn’t know how it would play out, but I knew I wanted to help immediately.

Another woman had also pulled over. Her plan was to immediately start walking across the southbound lane to get the animal. When she got close, she frightened the dog and it ran, getting hit by a car in front of us.

Good news: the dog continued running and disappeared out of harm’s way. Bad news: we couldn’t find it.

Our “helping” didn’t work out according to plan. In fact, we may have made the situation worse.

Sometimes in the world of philanthropy, we act too quickly because someone with financial or political power believes he/she has the answer.

Sometimes we are guilty of taking too long. We wait, gather information, convene, massage consensus-building conversations, and in the process, lives can be lost or too much time is wasted.

What’s the right balance? This question always begs an answer. In our world, more information will always be just beyond our fingertips. Predicting the future is not included. So we have to make difficult decisions. (Who was it who said that the worst decision is not to make one?)

With the help of meaningful conversations with brilliant people in the Hull Fellows program at the Southeastern Council of Foundations, here are some realities I am slowly coming to terms with:

  • There are lots of gray areas in community and philanthropic work. There will not often be a path to one “right” approach or “ultimate good.”
  • Donors, funders, nonprofit leaders, fundraisers and program officers will always do well to make space for huddle time with others before leaping forward.
  • Philanthropy may not always fund a solution, but it will always fund more knowledge when we take the time to learn from the results of our programs or approaches.

What challenges do you experience in your personal or organizational approach to work in philanthropy or community benefit?

Special thanks to Sarah Kinser, communications director at the Arkansas Community Foundation, a Hull Fellow who inspired this post with her recent reflection paper focused on “net good.”

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County


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