By Sarah Beauchemin

Philanthropy is a powerful force. It funds opportunity and hope for countless communities across the globe. But being strategic about giving is the key to bringing about real change; truly understanding nonprofits’ goals, needs, and timelines is what makes philanthropy effective.

[call_to_action color=”” button_text=”Click here” button_url=””]Do you or your organization provide significant funding to multiple nonprofits in San Diego? Increase the impact of your giving and join a professional network of people and organizations working to make our region better through philanthropy. For more information visit our website.[/call_to_action]San Diego Grantmakers (SDG) – a network that provides support services to organizations and individuals who are strategic about philanthropy – sought to explore the ways in which the giving sector can maximize the benefits they provide to the community.

SDG’s recent 2017 Annual Conference, “Taking A Stand,” provided an arena for this important discussion. A day of conversations with notable community leaders and funders led to finding out what it truly means for philanthropy to “take a stand.”

Through inspiring speeches and thought-provoking breakout sessions, a few common themes emerged across the day – the need to tell stories of change and impact, to truly listen to the stories of others, and to continually build trust in our communities.

Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers
Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers

How Philanthropy Can Take a Stand

Taking a stand in philanthropy begins by funders realizing their full gamut of sector-wide resources. For example, grantmaking is just one tool philanthropy has to achieve its overall mission. Funders also have both access and resources that can help align many other stakeholders in order to make a bigger difference. Acknowledging and using these tools helps philanthropists fully realize their ability to create the change they seek.

“Philanthropy has many ways that it is engaging more deeply and taking a stance on issues it cares about,” said Nancy Jamison, CEO at SDG.

In particular, these ways include gathering information from those driving the work on the ground and forging strategic partnerships with multiple sectors.

Inspiration was a natural byproduct of the talks given by the featured speakers, who were some of the most brilliant minds in the nonprofit and funding arenas.

The conference’s morning keynote speaker, Gara LaMarche – president of Democracy Alliance and chair of StoryCorps – elaborated on the power of storytelling to amplify one’s role as a philanthropist. “The human story has the power to inspire human change,” he said. Since well-told stories create different, more human levels of understanding than numbers do, they can change behavior.

The conference speakers shared how they’re using their stories to pave the way for companies, philanthropy, and other social sector organizations to move forward in a bolder way. Some of the most palpable themes included grantee sustainability, cultivating trust between funders and grantees through authentic conversations, and incorporating social equity into grantmaking. Being armed with this information helps donors give better and more strategically.

Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers
Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers

The conference also included breakout sessions that paired national philanthropy-serving organizations with regional and local experts such as Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), and the National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). This was a critical step in forming strategic partnerships that will help our local funders become more effective both individually and collectively for the benefit of the region.

“Together, now more than ever, we must build, inform, and foster the connections that will prepare San Diego’s philanthropic leadership to serve our community with power and intention,” said Jamison.

Funding the Right Things at the Right Time

But as many people realize, knowing is only half the battle. To date, one of the biggest issues with philanthropy is that it tends to have a lot of data, but translating that knowledge into action – and invoking real change – can be a challenge.

One of these challenges is strategic funding. Sometimes philanthropic organizations donate money without having a clear picture of their nonprofit partners’ long-term strategies. This can result in inadequate or ill-timed funding that falls short of truly making an impact.

“It really comes down to funding the right things at the right time,” said Warren Ruis, Director of Community Relations at SDG&E and SDG board member. In his role at SDG&E, Ruis is responsible for building the company’s philanthropy, employee, and community engagement strategies. His team manages a diverse group of more than 600 nonprofit partners in the SDG&E service territory.

“As funders, this means challenging ourselves to really think outside the norm,” said Ruis. “At Taking A Stand, we had revolutionary conversations about how to be very intentional with our giving and pair our funding with each of our donees’ unique needs. Multi-year grants, for example, were a big topic of conversation.”

But above all, no one should underestimate the power of collaboration, Ruis noted. “In philanthropy, collaboration among funders is absolutely critical to advancing donees’ causes. When we combine resources to fund change, the results are powerful. It’s basically like 2+2 = 5.”

Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers
Photo courtesy of San Diego Grantmakers

Cultivating a More Transparent Relationship Between Funders and Their Nonprofit Partners

While pulling funders together is indeed one huge aspect of impact philanthropy – and of SDG’s mission – another equally important part involves funders forming transparent and collaborative relationships with their beneficiaries.

“The biggest mistake one could make in the world of philanthropy is viewing it simply as a financial transaction,” said Macy Olivas, SDG board member and executive director of The Weil Family Foundation, established in 1996 by Patricia and Christopher Weil to support the arts and education.

“True philanthropy cannot be as easy as donating money,” she said. “Real change only comes from investing the time to form relationships with donees to gain a complete understanding of what they need and want, and why.”

The Weils have long understood the importance of a symbiotic donor-donee relationship. While they’ve given over $2 million in scholarships to low-income high school seniors who are the first in their families to attend college, they have also donated hundreds of hours each year as personal mentors.

“What I loved about Taking A Stand was that there were so many conversations built on the idea that personal relationships between donors and donees are at the heart of forging equity and justice,” said Olivas.

“When we talk about philanthropy in broad terms, there’s always this idea of ‘the donor world’ and ‘the donee world,’” she continued. “But why are they separate? There’s one world, and we need each other. We have to meet and have authentic conversations. Social justice in philanthropy starts with people really seeing and valuing each other.”

Ruis agrees with Olivas, noting that transparent donor-donee relationships are at the center of SDG&E’s corporate philanthropy mission.

“We as funders need to do a much better job in being accessible to grant recipients,” said Ruis. “A conversation can sometimes do more than anything else to serve as a guide. That’s why SDG&E offers Meet and Greets for its grant recipients, to do a tour, or to just chat openly about what their organization needs from us. We owe that to the local nonprofit community.”

Sarah Beauchemin writes for Voice of San Diego’s Partner Voices and is a freelance writer and content strategist for nonprofits, small businesses and...

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