A new year’s resolution to change

 Monday, January 11, 2016
Hugh Ralston


With the start of a new year, there is both the reality and illusion of cleansing – calendars, files, desks – even the mind.  We think about, and even commit to, new resolutions – to reduce the waistline, to be nicer to ourselves and even other people, to appreciate more and complain less.  Maybe even to get organized.  

Some of these resolutions last beyond the first week, and reflect a commitment to do better in the new year.   At least a belief in the possibility of change. 

In that spirit, and with a level of humility that appreciates my own complicity, I share some thoughts about wading through the philanthropese that sometimes convolutes our thinking, reflecting how we talk about our work and try to articulate its worth and value.    

Words. Words. Words.

As Eliza Doolittle exclaimed in in My Fair Lady – words, words, words!  We get caught up in our own language.    

At a recent meeting of colleagues, we started our meeting sharing some thoughts and phrases we hope never to hear again. Many struck home, both in their familiarity and as examples of how (Big P) philanthropy can sometimes hide its basic values. 

Among the concepts tossed on the fire were phrases that describe what we do:

  • social impact
  • collective impact
  • collaboration & partnerships
  • drivers of change
  • convening
  • capacity building
  • field building
  • bigger bus

Some were how we think about our work and its value:

  • strategic impact
  • transparency
  • synergy
  • logic model
  • partnerships
  • scalable
  • theory of change

Some were how we think about, and talk about, ourselves and what we want to accomplish:

  • out of the box
  • to the next level
  • manage momentum
  • changing the narrative

Code words for our work?

Each concept resonates, both with a vision of a response to our work, and the possibility of transformation, changes to the status quo or touching others.    These are easy code words or phrases, which seems like a secret and approved language, which we sometimes share with an easy confidence because we know what it means.

For me, many of these roll off the tongue with ease.  Sometimes it works.

Sometimes the message is arrogance

But sometimes, these words throw up barriers and miss the opportunity to connect with those with whom our work is deeply connected.   Donors. Grantees, Partners. Community Leaders. 

Sometimes we talk about philanthropy’s golden rule: our gold, our rules. 

Power to do good things

Philanthropy has a long history, built on its Greek derivations: love of man.  It is about dedicating resources towards ends that can be filled with the deepest meaning, greatest value or a core identification with personality, place or position.   It is a position of privilege – by its very wealth and presence, its tax advantage preferences, its power and influence -- and yet it also possesses a freedom to be innovative, different, countercultural, and long term. It has the power of initiative, the scale of its capital (influence, size and power), and the focus of its direction.     

Philanthropic grants can sustain, transform, assist, defend and open opportunities, as well as carry forth the ideas deeply embedded in its core mission or legacy of its founder(s).   It has created institutions, funded causes, nurtured individuals in need and in scope, and saved millions of lives.   It makes a difference, honoring and respecting its privileged position.     

Possibilities are real and tangible

Its possibilities – particularly in a region where need, opportunity, skill and potential coexist – are as flexible as the ideas that animate, the solutions it can create and the networks it can build.  It can not only do what capital has always done with its investments – create, nurture, develop and launch, but it can also transcend, innovate, rescue and inspire.

Community philanthropy can do all that and more, linked to a place and the people within.  It can invite, engage and encourage, along with sustain, protect and imagine.    

Move beyond the barriers of language

So one of my resolutions is to be careful of the philanthropese, to think about what one of my colleagues used to call the simplicity on the other side of complexity.   It can be done!

Nurturing those possibilities, protecting the passions of our donors and engaging others to believe we can chart a different future – these drive our work every day.

Here at the community foundation, we can move beyond the barriers of language and phrases that carry baggage, and do something that matters, to do it well today and tomorrow, and carry forth passions into productive and constructive change.    

We can do this, here. Together. Now.   Come join us.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston
President and CEO 
(559) 226-5600 ext. 101 

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Fresno Regional Foundation helps donors achieve their charitable goals, and we serve as a bridge connecting philanthropy to community-based organizations that provide programs and services throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

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