[Editor’s note: We asked contributors to tell us a question they think philanthropy needs to explore as the Atlanta conference begins. Here’s Roger’s answer.]
Naming just one question that philanthropy “must explore right now” isn’t easy. We’d all have quite a list, I imagine. But I’d choose this. How do we keep our eye on the long-term even as we and those we serve are consumed by economic crisis?
The short-term – likely even the middle-term – is going to be bad. We read about it all the time. It’ll echo throughout the Atlanta conference. Endowments have been clobbered, good nonprofits are reeling, and, most importantly, the people the nonprofits serve are suffering, in trouble, and scared.
Anytime calamity strikes, our impulse is to focus on nothing else. And of course the field must help grantees cope with the unfolding disaster. But it would be a mistake to do so at the cost of neglecting the longer-term future. Philanthropy needs to act now to prepare for it. Here are just two of the ways.
First, we need to get serious about creating new philanthropic capital. Tumbling endowments make it clearer than ever that we simply don’t have–much less grant out–funds commensurate with the giant challenges before us. It’s almost as obvious that we won’t have enough tomorrow or the next day. In other words, we’ve got a supply problem.
The demand isn’t likely to shrink over the next 25-50 years. If philanthropy is to meet even a fraction of that demand, it must grow. Some growth will surely be through tried-and-true means such as new private foundations and community foundations. But those won’t be enough. We have to find new ways.
One example: A handful of foundations are already investing in developing philanthropy among populations as diverse as young entrepreneurs, communities of color, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) community, immigrants, and youth. Most of those investments will only pay off over many years; creating philanthropic capital takes time. But the pay-off will be stunning–if the field invests now.
Second, philanthropy needs to respond less reactively and more comprehensively to the imperatives of deepening diversity and inclusion. Seismic demographic changes shape our times, changes so great that it’s hard to appreciate just how dramatic and rapid they are. Certainly there have been some hopeful recent changes in philanthropy, such as increased diversity at the program officer level and heightened visibility of diversity and inclusion. At the same time, we’ve also seen a defensiveness and resistance that are ultimately counterproductive, and likely to spur the very kind of regulation that few of us would welcome. The future’s barreling down–a very different future from today–and we can’t afford not to move forward more decisively now.