Philanthropy as a Platform for Civic Leadership

Philanthropy is often the tie that binds communities together. From city to city, state to state, country to country, the vast majority of people benefit from or participate in philanthropy. The true power of philanthropy, however, lives deeply beyond the art and form of grantmaking, and lends itself towards the ability – and responsibility – to equip and empower communities to move forward.

As an institution, philanthropy is uniquely positioned to meet the ever-changing needs of communities. With the proper support, communities are empowered to drive a variety of projects, programs, organizations and campaigns, of both big and small scale, that serve hundreds and, at times, thousands. The work we do in many ways is just the secret sauce – and this recipe for change doesn’t always come in the form of a check.  Indeed, our financial capital is important, but equally as important is the reputational, social, and intellectual capital we often bring. Just as communities are powered by the residents that live and work in them, foundations are powered by the people within them. And those people are very much an important part of the fabric of the communities they work to improve.

When I’m not meeting with grant partners, much of my time is spent with business and government leaders identifying collegial approaches we can take to tackle complex issues facing our community. For instance, last week I met with Dave Bing (former mayor of Detroit, retired Hall of Fame basketball player, and esteemed businessman) to brainstorm strategies to address the summer employment crisis that affects many teenagers and young adults.

As philanthropic professionals, our role and way of working is very distinct. Philanthropy provides balance and support. Neither business nor government can do work to improve communities and systems alone. If there is no profit involved, the private sector tends to stick to the status quo. If consensus isn’t built, government often operates with their hands tied. Business and government function best when the community is involved through civic leadership and engagement. We – the people powering foundations – can facilitate and promote these conversations and connection.

Beyond our elaborate mission statements and theories of change, at the core of our sector is improving the people and places around us. This is our secret sauce.

Making grants creates impact, but we also have the ability to be influential. When we do more than just grantmaking, we occupy the space of significance. When, and only when, we are significant, can our communities be successful.

At the Skillman Foundation, we’ve realized this necessary shift in how we approach our role firsthand. Just recently, under the leadership and vision of our board of directors and President & CEO Tonya Allen, the Foundation played a critical role in influencing change at the program and policy level. Our participation and leadership in The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and My Brother’s Keeper Detroit has not only laid the base for groundbreaking change, it has also positioned us to do things with community - not to them or for them. In these efforts, funding was not the driving force. Success wasn’t measured by the size of a grant or the announcement of a new program. Success was leveraging our various forms of capital to influence policies and practices at the local and state level. Being influential is the ability to effect and affect. It’s treating grantees as partners, not as clients.

When I first entered this field, I challenged myself to develop a personal mission statement that would guide my work and the way I engaged with community.  My life’s mission is to be a voice for the voiceless, chart a path for the lost, shine a light on the invisible, and give hope to the forgotten. In my opinion, this is philanthropy.

What three steps can your foundation take to move “beyond the grant”? What could be your secret sauce?

About the author(s)

Program Officer
Skillman Foundation