By Larry McGill, Vice President for Knowledge Services, Foundation Center
In “What makes a strong ecosystem of support to philanthropy?” Barry Knight has written a vitally important paper that illuminates one of the most important challenges facing philanthropy today – its lethargy in coming to the realization that it is part of an interconnected ecosystem. Just as the “great man” framework for understanding history has seen its day and been supplanted by more heuristically powerful ways of analyzing historical developments, so too is the notion of philanthropic impact as the sum of the activities of “great philanthropic organizations” playing itself out. The next leap forward for philanthropy is taking infrastructure seriously.
Philanthropy is at war with some of the most intractable issues facing humanity, such as climate change, poverty, and massive populations displaced by conflict. A war cannot be won without an army. And an army is more than simply a collection of individuals who have responded to a call to arms. It is a well-regulated unitary organism, far more than the sum of its individual parts.
Realistically, philanthropy will never achieve the operational efficiency of an army, and there are very good reasons why it shouldn’t aspire to the single-mindedness that characterizes an organized fighting force. But there are no good reasons why philanthropy should not strive to maximize its effectiveness through appropriate forms of strategic cooperation and action, on scales that go beyond the unconnected efforts of single organizations and individuals. Philanthropy’s sweet spot lies in a middle ground between individual initiatives and full-on collectivism.
But reaching this middle ground requires the development of connecting mechanisms that meaningfully link philanthropic organizations (“nodes”) with each other in ways that increase field-wide (“network”) efficacy. These connecting mechanisms allow the sharing of knowledge and promising practices among organizations, create platforms for amplifying the voice of the philanthropic sector on behalf of civil society, and serve as the crucible for the development of robust communities of practice dedicated to continuous improvement in achieving philanthropic impact. In the field of philanthropy, we loosely refer to these connecting mechanisms as infrastructure organizations.
No single organization can be both node and connector at the same time. The best a single philanthropic organization can do is to be a leader and hope to inspire followers. Representationally, you might imagine this as one large DOT, followed by an entourage of smaller dots. Nothing “connects” the smaller dots to the larger one, except the desire to follow in the leader’s footsteps. In this scenario, there are only nodes, no connectors. Without connectors, the ability of leaders and followers to stay on the same page together is completely contingent upon “followers” subordinating their goals and strategies to those of other “leading” organizations. This doesn’t sound like the field of philanthropy I know. This model may work for some limited subset of philanthropic organizations for some limited amount of time, to some limited good end. But this is not how the field can scale impact.
Let’s stop talking about “the power of networks” and get to work building them where they don’t exist and strengthening them where they do. It’s time to change our perception of what “philanthropy” actually is. “Philanthropy” is no longer just a collection of singularly-focused organizations and individuals pursuing their own missions irrespective of each other. Tough social problems laugh in the face of such disorganized efforts. Rather, philanthropy is BOTH philanthropic AND support organizations working together to more fully understand and bring appropriate capacity and better solutions to tackling tough social problems.
This is philanthropy, the networked approach. The approach that understands that philanthropy operates within a much larger ecosystem of powerful institutions and connecting frameworks. If the voice of philanthropy is to be heard in this larger ecosystem and if philanthropy is to achieve sustainable impact within this larger ecosystem, it will be networked philanthropy that will make this happen.