Philanthropy in the Age of Innovation

By: Natalia Schoorl, Program Assistant

The PF office is at the heart of Silicon Valley, where new ideas and new approaches are constantly brewing, and ‘innovation’ is a word you hear daily. In the PF priorities, after People, the Idea is the second element we are concerned with- “the relative importance of an idea, whether it matters, and if the organization can pull it off.” And in our own Global and Regional Portfolio criteria we seek out innovative ideas and approaches that create systemic change.

So it was fitting that last Saturday several PF staff joined in on a course titled, “Philanthropy in the Age of Innovation,” led by Christine Sherry through Stanford Continuing Studies to discuss trends in philanthropy, and how philanthropy fits into this age of booming technologies and increasing connectedness. Many interesting themes arose, so I’ll recount only a few trends and topics:

Trends in Philanthropy

  • In 2015, 71% of giving came from individuals
  • 84% of Millennials give an average of $481 per year across 3.3 orgs, accounting for 11% of U.S. giving, and are more likely to give via some form of technology. (While not surprising, I clearly need to get with it since I’m still writing checks over here!)
  • 72% Boomers give an average of $1,212 across 4.5 orgs, accounting for about 43% of total U.S. giving
  • Online giving increased by 9.2% in 2015
  • 29% of donors consider environmental protection to be one of society’s most pressing challenges, yet only 3% of donations go towards environmental causes

Innovative vs Tried-and-true

One concern that surfaced was how to balance the adrenaline of seeking out the next new bright idea while at the same time creating a strategy and criteria to address social issues. Christine proposed that analysis first pays off, especially for new funders, to understand context and identify gaps in services, and identify potential collaborators in the issue area. Before investing in the next new idea, try to understand what has come before, what has or hasn’t worked in the past and why. Let’s not be afraid of calculated risk, but learn from our failures because they will happen. As one participant reminded us, “Innovation means you’re going to fail sometimes.”

Grantee-centric Philanthropy

The afternoon focused on grantee-centric philanthropy, with panelists with the PF’s own Executive Director, Jessamyn Shams-Lau, and Patricia O’Brien, the Executive Director from Playworks Silicon Valley, a grantee in our Local Portfolio. As the PF notes on our website, “Most philanthropic practice is actually funder-centric in its priorities and effects. Grantees spend time, energy, and resources catering to their funders and potential funders almost every working day.” So what is grantee-centric philanthropy? Jessamyn spoke about building a culture of empathy, regularly soliciting feedback, and saying thank you. From Patricia’s perspective, grantee-centric philanthropy means that “The Program Officer is not across the table, she’s on my side, saying ‘How can we work on this together?’” There was an emphasis on cultivating the professional and personal relationship, instead of being a transactional exchange.

Culture of Learning

Of grantee-centric philanthropy, Jessamyn said, “There is a culture of openness to learning and humility.” We don’t have all the answers when it comes to how to best address issues facing the communities in which we live and work. That’s why we partner with individuals and community-based organizations. We don’t have all the answers when it comes to grantee-centric philanthropy. Each group has to find how it fits within their style and team culture. That’s why we seek input from grantees, and encourage other grantmakers to share their challenges and successes, just as we share our own. That’s why it’s important that we come together to ask questions and reflect on our work, approaches, and effectiveness, and then hold ourselves accountable.