Systemic Change or Isolated Impact?

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Posted Date : November 25, 2013

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I am always drawn to an essay that talks about how we are motivated to give, especially when the main character is a guide dog named Lucy. In a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in the New York Times, Paul Sullivan shared a story about his, and his wife’s, support of groups involved with helping the blind. Sullivan’s personal narrative highlights a couple of tensions faced by grantmakers.  Although his essay is directed to individual givers, the author managed to touch upon some of the big questions faced by all philanthropists.

First, the age-old question of whether it is better to give from the head or from the heart was raised. The second, and in my opinion, more interesting question was around wanting to have an isolated impact versus aiming for more systemic change. While there are no right or wrong answers, both questions beg an additional question:  Should we care about the effects of our giving? 

For me, the answers and the debates are different for different types of funders. Individual givers are free to set their own goals and strategies, while institutional givers are likely to be more mission-driven and more accountable to multiple stakeholders. Corporate giving professionals, in particular, have the responsibility of translating the motivations of their stakeholders to actionable and impact-oriented work on the ground. Acknowledging that there is a great deal of emotion in our work, our ultimate decisions should be based on how effectively we, and our community partners, are helping to solve a problem.

Among corporate funders, the increased dialogue around measurement is improving the quality of our work. I think that we can all agree that our ability to demonstrate the value of our work to  stakeholders is directly linked to the quality of our program outcomes and results. At the Council on Foundations, we commissioned Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Leading Corporate Philanthropy to encourage companies to articulate their place in creating greater value for society. Whether your giving is motivated by the heart or the head, knowing what you want to achieve with your generosity is key.  Just ask Lucy.

Michael Bzdak is an executive director of corporate contributions at Johnson & Johnson.

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