IPA Blog

Approaches to Philanthropy

Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Angela Brito de Rodriguez

This blog was written by Angela Brito de Rodriguez, manager of grantee partner support at the Arthur Dean Family Foundation, to provide an inside look into her Mutz Philanthropic Leadership Institute class.


“What role will you play?” The invitation to consider our roles as catalysts, conveners, communicators, and contributors was made by Marie Beason of Prosperity Indiana during our very first session of the 2024 class of the Mutz Philanthropic Leadership Institute. While the question was asked over a month ago, the search for its answer followed us through our second session as we explored various approaches to philanthropy, the role of mission and data in our practice, and the possibilities made by impact investing.

Philanthropy has undergone significant transformations since 1913 when the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered strategic giving to confront local and global challenges. Kathi Badertscher, the Assistant Dean of Academic Programs for the Lilly School of Philanthropy, enlightened us about the foundational components that shaped classical philanthropy studies theory:

  • Particularism: Addressing specific causes became a core principle.
  • Insufficiency: An acknowledgment of resource limitations.
  • Amateurism: Emphasizing the reliance on volunteers.
  • Paternalism: Reflecting the notion that "parental figures know best."

Today, the philanthropic sector continues to leverage time, talent, and treasure to grapple with challenges in public health, education, and sustainable environments. While pioneers like the Rockefellers used these resources to address some of the world's most pressing issues, contemporary leaders find themselves navigating the unintended impact that formal philanthropy has had on communities at large. As the landscape evolves, it becomes crucial for philanthropic leaders to engage in reflective practices and adapt their approaches to ensure positive, equitable outcomes for all. Approaches like trust-based philanthropy aim to redress power imbalances by shifting the focus away from the funder and centering it on the grantee. In this process, barriers to accessible funding are minimized, fostering a more equitable and collaborative philanthropic landscape.

In a thought-provoking session, Celia Diem, Director of Donor Advisory for American Philanthropic, encouraged a deeper reflection with another question: "How will you love others through your work?" Diem emphasized the importance of having a clear mission, articulating that love serves as the vocation, prudence acts as the virtue guiding its execution, and a well-defined mission effectively communicates the plan of action. By embracing this perspective, Diem highlighted the potential to simplify the act of giving, making it more accessible for those compelled to contribute to meaningful causes. Amid the direction a strong mission provides, Celia urged us to pursue excellence as there are no shortcuts to bringing a good mission to life.

Essential to infusing life into a mission is the strategic utilization of data, a point underscored by Amanda Lopez, President of Transform Consulting Group. Acknowledging the potential overwhelm associated with data, Lopez challenged the common misconception that more data is inherently better. Instead, she invited us to recognize that data serves as a powerful tool for creating impactful opportunities and, simultaneously, as an additional resource for continuous learning and thoughtful reflection. To optimize its utility, Lopez advises organizations to ensure that their data is not only findable and accessible but also interpretable and reusable. Additionally, she advocates for funders to proactively gather data on behalf of grantee partners. This dual approach not only alleviates the burdens on grantees but also provides essential support as they leverage data to articulate the significance of their work.

So, what role will we play? Should we be catalysts, conveners, communicators, or contributors? As the landscape evolves, it becomes crucial for philanthropic leaders to engage in reflective practices and adapt their approaches to ensure positive, equitable outcomes for all. Regardless of the role we choose to play, we’re invited to love others through our work by operating with a clear mission, leveraging data to create additional opportunities and to use our time, talent, and treasure to generate positive social and environmental change.

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