Greater Good Blog

The Future of Philanthropy: Be Bold, Be Brave, Be (a little) Boring

Eric Kessler

Interested in what’s new, innovative, and game changing in the philanthropy world? You should crash an Arabella staff retreat. Every year we get our team together for a fascinating and fun few days of big-picture thinking and brainstorming about the evolutions and needs of the philanthropy world. This year’s retreat, held a few weeks back, was just as thought provoking and inspiring as our past gatherings. Though this time we invited a few of the smartest minds in philanthropy form outside Arabella to come and share their wisdom in an informal panel discussion. Jane Wales of the Aspen Institute and the Global Philanthropy Forum, Jacob Harold of GuideStar, and Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, were kind enough to share their thoughts with us. I recognized a few themes throughout our conversation: to achieve real and lasting impact, philanthropists need to be bold in embracing new technologies; be brave in building new strategies and infrastructure, even if it means dismantling what’s already here; and sometimes be a little boring by putting aside projects with a novel sheen in favor of effective, tried-and-true initiatives.

Our panelists raised a few questions. Here’s my take:

How can we best balance our ambitions with patience? With the wealth of big data before us, there is a temptation to prematurely measure outcomes and, thus, abandon programs that address complicated, long-term problems too quickly. Philanthropists need to make a bold decision to stick with timelines that match the scope of the challenge at hand and measure meaningfully, and not just because we can.

How many of us are here to put ourselves out of a job? Philanthropists are a passionate, mission-driven bunch who set and achieve impressive goals. But perhaps our ultimate measure of success should be that we have made ourselves obsolete. Solid institutions may give way to fluid networks. We may dissolve organizations only to rebuild them with a new mission in mind. New thinkers from new sectors may join our ranks. We need to not only adapt, but be brave enough to acknowledge what we need to leave behind entirely. And then do just that.

Why aren’t we taking advantage of the opportunities that are in our reach? While we’re thrilled our clients and colleagues focus on innovations and new ideas, at times, it’s at the expense of long-running initiatives that need one last push. The last mile is often the hardest to complete, whether you’re talking about a marathon or eradicating polio. When it comes to the latter, what good are all our prior efforts if there are still a handful of cases in the world? Knowing we had the ability to address and finish jobs like this only to let them linger would be not only frustrating but shameful.

I’m looking forward to seeing what questions we’ll be asking ourselves at next year’s retreat and who our special guests will be.

As founder and managing director of Arabella Advisors, Eric Kessler has built a social venture firm dedicated to making philanthropy more effective. His client work at Arabella includes philanthropy strategy, evaluation, foundation management, and project execution. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_kessler.

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