If I asked you to personify philanthropy, what would you say? (Ok, now I'm curious, tweet and tell!) 

At first glance, he might be fairly traditional and lethargic, with a love for the arts and cocktail parties, and a fisherman at heart. At second look, she might be an environmental activist, involved in her small-town community, and on the board of two health and empowerment-focused nonprofits. With still another look, philanthropy is the blur of a runner who refuses to quit. And, with another look, they transform again through an infinite kaleidoscope of “people we know.”

I'm not pitching a montage video, though there are some good ones out there. Foundation staff and trustees don't fit a singular mold, but they all wield a similar power, and that's the power to challenge the status quo. Through convening key actors, building capacity, publishing articles, meeting with government leaders, and, of course, grantmaking, philanthropy doesn't have to take “that's the way things are” for an answer. When a group of Rwandan women wanted to grow a beekeeping business (though it's a traditionally male activity), the African Women's Development Fund supported them. When marriage was defined in the U.S. as between a man and a woman, the Civil Marriage Collaborative raised a unified voice. When there was suspected imbalance in summer camp opportunities for youth in different geographies, the Jim Joseph Foundation stepped in with a program pilot. You hear these stories every day in our field, but we seldom pause to appreciate that the heartbeat of philanthropy personified is an insistence on questioning norms and pushing for change. Every action is in the name of upping our communities' game, of making the world a place where people can thrive.

On a very related and visible note, there have been a number of statements and a lot of discussion by field leaders about philanthropy's charge in a shifting U.S. government context. A new, up-and-coming leader recently questioned, “So what happens to current grantees when foundations decide to shift priorities? Do they just get left hanging, or do they shift too, or is everything still the same for them?” Good questions, and as we know, probably all of the above. As you ponder present or future shifts in your approach to challenging the status quo, take extra time to balance new thinking with learning from tried and true practice. I recently reread our guides from years ago on effective exits and funding advocacy, and they're just as useful as ever. Knowledge is an important power, too, and my personal plea is to always build strategic practice and thoughtful risks into every action. The best way to do that: sharing with and learning from colleagues that are challenging the status quo through the same heartbeat.

This letter originally appeared in yesterday's GrantCraft newsletter. To sign up for our newsletter and special alerts, register for free

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About the author(s)

Director of Stakeholder Engagement