Philanthropy has changed quickly in the past decade, and transformation continues to happen as donors receive more scrutiny. This scrutiny is due in part to the failure of many philanthropists to create real, lasting change with their donations. It’s clear that many observers are seeing little, or only temporary, benefit from the work of many modern philanthropists—perhaps because these donors focus on tackling abstract problems, rather than tailoring their solutions to the needs of real people with tangible problems. One could view this failure as an issue of not listening.
In the push for strategic philanthropy, many givers pay close attention to what researchers and pundits say, as well as fellow philanthropists. However, relatively few philanthropists ask for feedback directly from the grantees they seek to support and the people whose lives they want to improve. Perhaps that’s because this so-called “people-oriented philanthropy” has received criticism as an inefficient, non-strategic—or even reactive—approach to giving. These critics instead promote strategic philanthropy as a way to bring about lasting systemic change. However, this opinion may be falling out of favor.
The Growing Need for a Collaborative Form of Philanthropy
No one would argue that wide-scale change isn’t needed; we are grappling with huge issues like poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity, both in our own country and globally. However, proponents of people-focused philanthropy argue that philanthropists and academics don’t always have the answers as to how change should happen. In contrast, people who have lived in poverty or experienced systemic inequality have ideas that should not be discredited when seeking out new philanthropic strategies. After all, who is more of an expert on what these people need, than these people themselves? They face real problems that philanthropists have the power to relieve if they listened more.
In the past couple of years, some people have questioned the democratic nature of philanthropy—or, more specifically, whether such giving represents true democracy. If wealth is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of billionaires, these individuals effectively get to decide which causes matter and which don’t, and which solutions get the most funding—whether they’re effective or not. Philanthropy could be democratized by involving the people donors want to help in conversations about solutions. People are the ultimate beneficiaries of philanthropy and thus should play a key role in all stages of philanthropic giving. This process can begin before any grant has been made. Once philanthropists identify who they wish to help, they should reach out to these groups, build connections, and listen to what they have to say.
What a People-Focused Approach to Philanthropy Means
People-focused grantmaking means looking at the impact of giving in the context of the people it’s meant to help. When assessing a program, it is important to ask for input about what is and is not working, and adjust grantmaking in line with that feedback. These short-term successes can often develop into long-term, systemic programs that tackle the private and public policies many philanthropists often try to address first. In this way, it’s possible to think of people-focused philanthropy as ground-up giving, rather than top-down. Systemic change occurs in a lasting way when it is adjusted to the specific needs of people, and these needs can only be understood when those individuals are part of the conversation.
Philanthropists can combine short-term and long-term goals with people-focused philanthropy. The trick is not overlooking the here and now for more vague, potential systemic change in the future.
For example, imagine a program meant to provide economic empowerment to low-wage workers. While it makes sense to push for a state or federal increase in minimum wage, this is a long-term goal that may not address the problems these people face now. By using funding to open up new job opportunities that in turn stimulate the local economy, the value of these workers may become clearer, and the push for higher wages might start to make more sense for policymakers.
Combining Strategic Philanthropy with People-Focused Giving
The push for strategic philanthropy may have inadvertently discouraged listening in grantmaking, but in reality, there’s a place for both strategies. While experts can weigh in on issues with theories, that does not eliminate the need to speak with the people who would benefit from a philanthropic gift. The opinions of these individuals are just as valuable as the opinions of researchers, as they have the actual experience that no amount of research can replicate.
Luckily, a number of prominent philanthropists have begun speaking out in support of people-focused giving, and new tools have become available in recent years. For example, the Fund for Shared Insight is a collaborative among philanthropists that works to build greater capacity for nonprofits to connect with people at the community level and understand their needs. Ultimately, the organization seeks to maximize the impact of grants. As the push for accountability grows, it will not be surprising to see more organizations like this appear in the future.