Update From the Foundation
Philanthropy Must Lead With Its Heart
February 12, 2015
This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on February 12, 2015. It beautifully states what we at the Compton Foundation believe about our work and we are inspired by the leadership that Peter and Jennifer Buffett, and the NOVO Foundation, bring to our field.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, we are struck by a paradox that confronts philanthropy. The very meaning of the word philanthropy is “love of humanity”—yet the concept of love is almost never discussed in our sector.
In the race for philanthropic impact, we’ve got our heads in the game, but what about our hearts?
This is not, as some might claim, a question of fuzzy emotions. Instead, as we hear that nonprofit leaders are advised to avoid words like “love” or “caring” for fear of being seen as “not strategic,” we believe we face a larger problem that could ultimately limit what philanthropy dares to achieve.
Over the last 10 years, we’ve been lucky enough to become financially independent, and at nearly the same time, to become stewards of a large foundation we’ve called the NoVo Foundation. Neither of these things were expected. At all.
After spending a decade in this altered state, we have come to some basic conclusions. People are incredibly resilient. Nature is a phenomenal teacher and the most advanced technology we’ll ever see. As humanity progresses through time, our narcissistic tendencies may be getting the best of us. It’s imperative that we see ourselves in a loving relationship to each other and our planet if we are going to survive—collectively and quite possibly individually.
Perhaps most important: We’ve searched long and hard, but we can find very few indicators that tell us things are truly getting better for more people. Or that they will anytime soon. As our foundation seeks to address the root causes of big global challenges, all we see is symptom after symptom of a poisoned root. It’s systemic: education, agriculture, politics, media—the planet and the people—all commoditized to buy and sell.
This has led us to a new way to think about our role: alchemy. In a world in which everything is a commodity, we’re going to try to turn money into love. Into trust. Into safety. The first elements in the periodic table of relationships.
And we hope that by sharing some initial ideas from our work at NoVo, we might also start a broader conversation about putting love back into the world of philanthropy.
• First, love means understanding that we don’t have the solutions to the problems we hope to solve and that the real breakthroughs come from the people who live with those challenges every day. After all, it’s the people who are most affected by a problem who most often hold the solutions.
• Just as love doesn’t do well being locked up, money doesn’t either. And we’ve observed that if money isn’t moving in philanthropy or any sector, it’s because of fear. If we are inspired by love, we should challenge ourselves whenever possible to spend more of our assets to move money to where it’s needed now.
• In practical terms, love also means providing grants that cover a longer period of time and that provide general operating support. We’re not dictating the direction. Not unlike an investment philosophy we learned from Peter’s father, we’re not interested in tinkering with passion and commitment.
• Love means actively seeking out collaboration and partnership with others, rather than rushing to claim credit for oneself or one’s own organization.
• It means investing in people—because people create lasting change. And that means truly embracing mistakes as part of a natural learning process, not simply paying lip service to the need for experimentation or risk.
• Love means accepting that social change is ultimately about human capacity, human relationships, and human happiness and that progress in these areas is never easy to measure. After all, how do you measure a girl knowing she’s safe? How do you measure a worker’s dignity? How do you measure joy?
We’ve all seen money change behavior. What if behavior could change money? What if, by giving in ways that demonstrate our trust as opposed to control, the return would be honesty? And with that honesty would come deeper relationships. And in those relationships we could begin to develop a better understanding of what the person on the other side of the grant truly needs to lead a healthy and fulfilled life? Not a donor’s version of life, but theirs?
There’s a reason love songs are so numerous and popular. Love can’t be quantified. But it seems to matter. So how can we infuse love into the motivating force behind moving money? There are certainly other unquantifiable forces at work—greed and fear to name two. How can we put money out of its misery?
We live in a wildly dynamic time in history. When so much of our social fabric appears to be frayed, the solution is not to sew faster but to find new material. Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” it’s been here all along. And the road starts by leading with our hearts.
Jennifer and Peter Buffett are co-presidents of the NoVo Foundation.