10 Takeaways from Philanthropy NY

JWFNY attended Philanthropy NY’s 36th Annual Meeting, where we heard from a range of activists working around the world. Here are 10 Takeaways about how to be an effective philanthropist and impact change. Read more about the event here.

1. Be Patient

Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, discussed the importance of patience. “It is very important to be patient when you are promoting good governance, gender equality and independent media…Sometimes donors are in a rush to see results and we tell them, ‘Give us time and you will see results in 5 -10 years.’ Some of our journalists have started with our [journalism training] program nine years ago and today have become icons and have become benchmarks for what journalism is all about.” Don’t expect change overnight; be realistic about evaluation and time.

2. Local Ownership

Listen to local voices. Don’t come in with a pre-designed program. Philanthropists and grantmakers come into communities with plans but they are not necessarily the best for that specific context. Avila Kilmurray, director of policy and strategy at the Global Fund for Community Foundations, said “It is a matter of a little bit of sensitivity. Because what philanthropy can bring is two things: the potential to invest in research and development and patient capital. These two things are really important when they are married with co-designing a program with grantees.” Don’t assume you know everything. Listen to local communities.

3. Focus on One Cause

Don’t chase trendy causes. This past year, millions of dollars were sent to West Africa to fight Ebola before it disappeared from headlines. Only months later, we switched our focus to the Syrian refugee crisis, with the US alone donating more than $3 billion. Instead of chasing trends, focus on one cause – your “fish and chips.” Find your “bread and butter.” Find what speaks to you – and stick with it! Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate and president of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa , urged the audience, “Once you know what your focus is, you can go on the ground and do a solid assessment, honestly by talking to community people, you can find out who is doing the work.”

4. Be Aware of Side Effects

Everything has consequences – some good and some bad. It is important to do research and analyze your target audience and context. Ask questions about the sustainability of the project and how it interacts with the local culture. There are countless examples of good ideas and good intentions that run amok because of complex dynamics at play that only community members understand. “It was only through really careful evaluation and trials on the ground that we got a sense of what worked,” said Kristof.

On the flip side, some projects can also have positive side effects, such as the case of women’s empowerment and providing clean water. With clean water, child mortality decreases, maternal health increases, allowing children to receive an education and have an impact in society. When women are empowered, maternal health increases, poverty decreases, and the economic growth increases.

5. Gendered Grantmaking

Don’t exclude significant populations. “Don’t just look at those who have bank accounts and fancy offices when you go into communities to work. Start looking at the women and the skills that they bring, regardless of how their physical appearance looks, they may have something unique to contribute.” Make a special effort to include less vocal or disempowered populations. Always ask who is not in the conversation and how they can be part of it.

6. Get Rid of that “Savior” Mentality

Instead of going into a community with grand ideas of how to save them, ask what programs area already in place. Ask what they want. Gbowee cautioned, “In every community, there are people who have an idea of what they want and how that change can come. The problem is that people come in with a savior mentality. We have come in to save these poor people. Once you go in with this savior mentality, one billion $ later, you realize that you were the one who did not come in thinking right. It is always important to go in and ask what can what can we do, what do you need.”

7. Ask questions. Don’t assume.

Philanthropy is not about feeling good. It is about making lasting change through grantmaking and partnerships with local organizations. Gbowee stressed, “If you want to do it right, go on the ground. Ask questions. Eventually you will get it right. There is a lot of feel good in philanthropy. They feel bad about something – so let me give my money to someone…we need to move away from feeling good and start helping others.”

8. Do Preventative and Post-conflict Work

Grantmaking is not just reactionary, as we saw with the Ebola crisis. It is just as important to do preventative work, before the problem escalates into a crisis. The United Nations Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Upfront notify UN officials of human rights violations before they become widespread in order to stop them. Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary general to the United Nations, explained, “There is so much we can do with early signals. We need to listen to them…We absolutely now need to take measures to act early on…we have to do prevention and post-conflict work.”

9. Metrics are Relative

Realize that not everyone measures and evaluates success in the same way. It is not just about the outcomes and goals, but the process of growth and understanding necessary to reach those goals. Gbowee told audience members of her own beginning in Liberian activism: “Don’t just go in for those who can read and write and speak good languages…you want to see the reports and neat proposals – but you don’t get the real work. Several years ago no one would recognize us [Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa] as a group worthy of their dollars – donors described us as ‘a group of pathetic looking women who could get nothing done.’ But history has proven that these ‘pathetic women’ actually went out there without any political state and got the job done. It is important for us to recognize this.”

10. Charity begins at home

We’ve heard this time and time again. Charity begins at home – we need to fix our problems at home before we can fix the world. Instead of looking to the far corners of the earth, look in your own neighborhood to make change. Gbowee charged audience members to look inward: “It’s easy for the US to talk about human rights from the outside perspective – looking at outsiders… No one wants to talk about human rights here…I think it is time that there is a recognition from this part of the world that we need to focus inward.” Charity begins at the local level. There is no shortage of domestic issues; it’s time we start working on them.


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