When I recently attended the 25th anniversary celebration & symposium for The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), I felt like a 25-year old in the room surrounded by the depth and breadth of experience that the average 25-year old typically lacks. (I came to the field of philanthropy just five years ago, so I still often feel like a freshman among a room full of long-tenured professors.) With Ellen Remmer, TPI’s Interim Managing Partner, Pilot House Associates’ Melinda Marble, and Peter Karoff, the venerable Founder of TPI, providing the opening plenary, you can see what I’m talking about.
The biggest takeaway of the day for me seems so very obvious, but it was repeated in different ways throughout the day: Philanthropy is highly personal.
In offering her reflections on philanthropy, Melinda reminded us that if you focus on the process and follow a linear path without heart, you can often put your work in jeopardy. I appreciated listening to Melinda’s keynote remarks, but the most memorable illustrative example she shared referenced “unintended consequences” resulting in a negative impact on the overall funding objective of the donor. I’d never given much thought to unintended consequences… but what followed brought to mind an example of unintended consequences of the best possible kind.
During a Q&A, Ellen asked Peter what was the highest and best use of philanthropy? He responded, “Philanthropy is fundamentally a representation of your values and passion.” He remarked that coming in at the intersection where one might find a gap, a moment in time, in an area that interests you, you can “be that lever”, a change-agent, and pulling that lever is “highly personal”.
I learned the above from Peter – not at the TPI event, but rather 26 years ago. In 1989, I had just started working as general manager for the New Repertory Theatre, a small fledgling company in Newton at the time. Peter’s wife Marty was on the board of directors, and I recall attending a “salon” at their home with the intent to raise money for the theatre from their friends and neighbors. At the time, I had no experience in fundraising, and if asked, I probably couldn’t have told you what philanthropy really was all about. But in witnessing Peter and Marty speak so passionately about the New Rep, how meaningful it was to them and their community, I came to understand how deeply personal philanthropy could be.
Peter Karoff was raising money for a theatre – one he felt (and to this day still feels) so passionate about. His words and passion were not directed at me, a 25-year old staff member for the theatre. (I didn’t have deep pockets - I was working at a fledgling theatre, remember?). But an unintended consequence of that event helped form my understanding and provide me with a basis for much of how I have approached giving in my life. Further, as I interact with organizations through my work at Associated Grant Makers, I often see how donors and staff make choices, which “lever to pull”. I know what resonates most is when funders hear a personal story, experience a site visit rather than just read a proposal, interact with someone benefiting directly from a grant.
The unintended consequence of turning 50 this year doesn’t have me longing for those hazy, lazy days of my 20’s. Rather, I have found myself pausing to remind myself of where I have been. I appreciated seeing Peter and thinking back on that first encounter with him, and more importantly, how it shaped me. My reflections here may be stating the obvious, but sometimes what seems so simple is also what we might lose sight of and bears restating. Certainly, one can never be reminded too often to think about what you most value and where your passion lies. In philanthropy, as in life, this seems like a most important guiding principle.
Jeff Poulos is Executive Director of Associated Grant Makers.
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