Lessons Learned at the Pacific Northwest Global Donors Conference 2013

PNWGDC2013-1Last week, a group of 70+ individuals, including philanthropists and practitioners, gathered together in Seattle for the Pacific Northwest Global Donors Conference to connect and discuss how to navigate “the new choices” being offered in global philanthropy. This is my second time attending the conference and I thought the small size and regional attendees brought an interesting hands-on and collaborative experience not seen at many other conferences. I would encourage any active donors interested in global giving practices to attend the next event.

Quick Talks – What’s Happening

The day started with a series of “quick talks” that featured the work of seven diverse organizations. In their 6-7 minute presentation, the executive directors shared a bit about their work and the opportunities and challenges they were facing. Each group also shared their approach and tools used, including Impact investing, long-term flexible support, crowd-funding and giving circles, invention and innovation in global giving, networked philanthropy and horizontal philanthropy. Several things stood out for me during these presentations:

1. Scaling up impactfully – scale does not always mean exponential. It may mean going deeper and building a community. Katherine Zavala from IDEX spoke about how issues in a community are weaved together.

2. Shannon Farley of Spark spoke about the next generation’s approach, called “networked philanthropy.” These young professionals’ tools include social capital-crowd-sourced grants, pro bono professional services, connections, and attention-in-grassroots women’s organizations. In hindsight, Shannon stated that it may have been better if they had not incorporated as a 501c3 tax-exempt entity. As a network, they needed to scale and being a nonprofit has been problematic at times.

3. Abigal Sarmac from the Lemelson Foundation described how they inspire, educate and incubate early-stage science and technological invention-based businesses that have the potential to sustainably serve the needs of the poor. She is concerned about over-investing resources for some groups.

Open Space – Idea Generation

The organizers decided to experiment this year with the format of the event. They included two open space workshops. I attended the session topic led by Mike Rea of the Gates Foundation and former founding CEO of Give2Asia on the “worst uses of philanthropic capital.” Some of the worst uses mentioned by the group included:

1. Donors pulling out without seeing the work through

2. Demands of the funder may not be commensurate with the amount of the grant

3. The fickleness of donors taking away time from the staff and their work

One idea that was not mentioned at the session was how western donors are training indigenous groups to abide by their requirements – reporting, programmatic, staffing, budgeting, etc. While we may see these as best practices, they may not apply in the local context. In addition, I wonder if these practices attract local donors or if they hinder the growth of local philanthropy.

How to Navigate Through the Many Choices in Philanthropic Practice

I had the pleasure of joining Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and John Harvey, Managing Director of Global Philanthropy at the Council on Foundations on the closing panel. Our session was a reflection of what we observed that day and how a donor might integrate all these new philanthropic options in their work while embracing the tried and true.

Lara spoke of her foundation’s work in Russia and the highly changing and unpredictable legal status their grantees face. While there are many new options and trendy ideas in the philanthropy space, Lara says they prefer to stick with the tried and true since it was working for them. John spoke of the changing legal landscape and the regulations affecting our industry. He also elaborated on how other regions were adapting to changes in the field.

I believe donors who are hands-on and active – are always coming up with new ideas because they are trying to tackle big issues. They should celebrate this creativity. The tools that we are hearing about – impact investing, giving circles, venture philanthropy – these are all tools and we should take the concepts, innovate on them and apply them to our unique situations. What and how we adopt them is based on each donor’s own ability, what they are trying to address, and if the groups that they are working with can adjust or absorb what is being offered to them. Behind all this sexy and new philanthropy jargon should be some application of common sense.

I look forward to next year’s event in Seattle. However, I left wondering if perhaps we should also host a similar event in the San Francisco Bay Area for hands-on philanthropists focused on Asia. What do you think?

Photos courtesy of Michele Frix of Seattle International Foundation

About the Author

DYuenWebsiteDien S. Yuen is founder and managing director of Kordant Philanthropy Advisors, a social venture firm dedicated to more effective, impactful and joyful philanthropy. As an advocate of donor education and the strengthening of the philanthropic sector in the U.S. and Asia, she speaks at many events and her insights are often quoted in leading publications, including Forbes Asia, New York Times, Family Office Review, San Francisco Business Times and Economist Intelligence Unit reports.

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