Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Become a Convener of Conversations: Making a Difference beyond Your Checkbook

Part I of a three part series about "Philanthropy and Policy"

By Lea M. Johnson, Grant Writer and Advisor, LMJ Consulting

As I listen to budget debates in the media, I am reminded of an insightful conversation I heard recently. It was about how philanthropists—from large private foundations and corporations to individual donors—have the power to influence social change beyond their charitable giving.

There is a crucial intersection where philanthropists can bring nonprofit organizations and government policy makers together to build stronger communities. I have become increasingly inspired by the idea of philanthropists as conveners of conversations. I hope to inspire others—particularly donors—by blogging about this topic and by offering resources, tips, and ideas about how to make a difference beyond just writing checks.

Here is how the conversation started for me. Kevin Walker, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, was wrapping up a session at the 2011 Grantmaking Outlook Seminar sponsored by the Minnesota Council on Foundations. He said to the crowd of attendees (and I’m paraphrasing), “It can become easy for us in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector to merely sit back and watch what is happening at the capital—while wringing our hands—wondering what the Legislature will decide to do about the budget. But, in doing so we miss an opportunity to bring people to the table to help solve problems.”

Kevin went on to say that some people in philanthropy shy away from engaging in advocacy because they interpret the IRS rules against lobbying by private foundations to mean that they can’t support advocacy at all. He pointed out that there are permissible research, education and advocacy activities that do not cross the line into lobbying, and that philanthropic folks are well-positioned to convene conversations to address the social issues they support.

This was an “aha!” moment for me. It was also a reminder of something I had learned early in my career as a program officer. In the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to work at The Wasie Foundation, a family foundation whose assets topped $42 million. One day, my executive director, by nature a big-picture guy, came into my office and said something like, “Lea, I really want to get a better handle on how we can be more effective grantmakers in the area of schizophrenia. Please call the director for the National Institute of Mental Health and get us an appointment for our upcoming trip to D.C.”

Me, out loud to him: “Sure thing, I’ll take care of it.” Me, quietly, to myself: “Really? We can do that?”

And you know what? A few weeks later we were having coffee with the director of the National Institute of Mental Health in his office and discussing how a private foundation could do the most good for the 1 percent of the population in this country—over two million Americans—who suffer from schizophrenia. We discussed the havoc the illness wreaks on individuals and families, and the significant cost it has on society. We weighed the merits of funding large national research projects versus local direct social service programs. This conversation helped inform our grantmaking over the next several years. In the years that followed, I was privileged to sit in on a number of similar meetings, on a broad array of topics, with leading Twin Cities’ business people, philanthropic executives, and thought leaders of the day.

The point here is that when a philanthropist calls to ask policy makers to take time to discuss a social problem, they rarely say no. What are they going to say? “Those pesty-altruistic philanthropists are calling again, trying to make the world a better place.” Of course not. People of influence want to be part of those conversations, and they are honored to be asked to participate.

What Kevin suggests takes this idea to the next level. Savvy philanthropists—whether individual or institutional—are the natural conveners of conversations to solve social problems. They have already invested themselves and are likely to know who the experts are in the field. This power to bring people together—to convene conversations—is a crucial way in which donors can make a difference for the social causes about which they are passionate. While donating money is important, the ability to help shape policy and improve systems is truly transformative.

Such conversations are transformational because it can recast the partisan, never-ending, and circular debates about appropriation and state and federal programming and budgets. Working to tackle a specific problem helps move the conversation from a theoretical political debate to specific problem-solving activity. By convening conversations with policy makers, nonprofit experts, and other community leaders, philanthropists can help identify workable solutions for some of our toughest social issues.

Since this initial “aha!” moment, I’ve had a few email and phone conversations with Kevin. He has generously shared his wisdom and suggested tapping into several other thought leaders on this topic. I am going to share their insights and knowledge in my blog posts that will follow. These posts will address:

  • Success stories of collaborations between philanthropy, nonprofits and policy makers
  • Understanding lobbying and advocacy for foundations and other types of institutional donors

I hope you will join me in this conversation. Now more than ever, I believe donors of all types need to become conveners of conversations, bringing together policy makers with nonprofit and for-profit thought leaders. Together, we can find inventive ways to solve our deepest social problems within our limited budgets.

About Lea:

Lea M. Johnson has two decades of experience as both a grantmaker and grantseeker. For seven years, she served as a program officer and manager for a $42 million family foundation. Over the last fourteen years, she has raised millions of dollars in corporate and foundation grants for nonprofit organizations.

She serves as Principal at LMJ Consulting and can contacted at


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