Tidying Up Philanthropy

Since returning from a recent trip to Japan, I’ve been hyper-aware of the chaos and trash that my home city (New York) seems resigned to. It’s everywhere – from overflowing trash cans (often full of items that could be recycled) to people angrily elbowing their way off the subway. But when people and places take pride in tidiness, shared space, and orderly mores, interaction becomes more effective and enjoyable. The same is a helpful reminder for philanthropy in more ways than we might think! To name a few:

  • Keep up appearances: Think about the information you share about your grantmaking. Is it confusing and ambiguous, leaving organizations to guess at your intentions? Make sure that your website is easy to use and accessible, that your funding data tells a clear story, and that your grant applications have clear, reasonable instructions. (Technology is one tool we can use to streamline our systems, and speaking of tech, Nonprofit for Good’s Global NGO Tech Survey is now open! Take the survey to help us all understand how organizations worldwide use technology.)
  • Lose the baggage: If you’ve found yourself saying “well, this is how we’ve always done it” as justification for maintaining a status quo, stop! Honoring and learning from what has worked in the past is critical, but using past structures as a must-follow precedent is not. It limits strategic growth and alienates new perspectives. Philanthropy is a field notorious for moving too slowly at times, and our “baggage” is likely part of the problem.
  • Make space for everyone...: We tamp down a lot of talent in philanthropy but there’s plenty of room for everyone. Budget meaningful professional development opportunities for all staff; encourage not-the-usual voices to author articles and attend events; make introductions and offer mentorship; meaningfully listen to questions and new ideas, and encourage co-creation of solutions.
  • …but don’t create a traffic jam: When I worked for a foundation, one of my biggest pet peeves was people calling who didn’t want to talk to me, just to my boss. This practice doesn’t help organizations move together as harmoniously as they could. Respect roles, including that of gatekeepers, and engage meaningfully with whoever you’re in contact with. Let's move away from the messy game of needing to match hierarchies and interrupting one another’s priorities– the domino effects of this are not usually positive ones.
  • Grapple with tough stuff: It’s easy to become resigned to sub-optimal norms, but that doesn’t make it right. Inclusion, for example, needs to be more than just a buzzword framed as a ‘nice to have.’ But to do that, it takes intensive conversation (often over years – this isn’t your average 45 minute meeting) and intentional action. And, like with a city’s trash problem, it’s easy to see yourself as insignificant to solutions, but we have to start reframing tough stuff as everyone’s problem.

How are you cleaning up your work and approach?

In spring cleaning solidarity,


This letter originally appeared in GrantCraft's newsletter. To stay updated with our newsletter and special alerts, sign up here.

About the author(s)

Director of Stakeholder Engagement