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January 25, 2023 / admin

What Does Your Philanthropy Support Organization Really Do?

 A Reflection by Dana Lanza, Founder and CEO, Confluence Philanthropy

Ultimately what happens around the world depends on the ability of PSO conveners to do their jobs exceptionally well. The power of an effective philanthropy support organization is more influential than that of any one foundation.

Before joining philanthropy in the role of Executive Director at the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) in 2004, I had founded and led a community based environmental justice organization in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco. Busy keeping the lights on and serving the community, I never thought much about how philanthropy is structured; where endowments are housed, nor how foundations work together to fuel the massive social change movements happening around the globe. Before accepting the job, I asked a friend who was working as a grantmaker at the time what my job would involve. I was told “Well, you set the table, but you don’t get to be at the table.”

Over the years I’ve learned that is largely true. However, I’ve also learned about the power of being the host – in shaping an invitee list, the discussion, and deciding what’s on the menu and how it’s sourced. Everyone knows that a successful dinner party is well planned. It’s always good to have several charismatic guests who will enliven the party and make it memorable and interesting – the best parties always launch into unexpected conversation resulting in new relationships. What’s perhaps most important for a successful dinner party is setting the intention and vision for an event. In time I realized that all these factors position convenors as strategists that shape some of the most important discussions impacting social and environmental movements … and that I had become one of those strategists.

As Above, So Below

Arriving with a background in community organizing, I quickly surmised that foundations are a lot like nonprofit organizations: they need to work together to make change happen. Building trust and relationship is incredibly important. Collaborators may not always agree on every tactic, but they understand that they need one another and that they must work together. Yet, the stakes are much higher when philanthropy doesn’t work effectively. I understood that it was my job to bring foundations together to create peer-to-peer learning opportunities and to meet leading social changemakers to advance environmental goals. I was told that foundations needed a safe space to make this happen so that they could have private deliberations about the flows of philanthropic capital. I respected that because I had done enough community work to understand that capital can be destructive when poorly distributed. I also understood that it was important to keep the door open to diverse points of view and to help foundations become more comfortable with hearing dissonant voices.

Over time, I began to realize that the way in which foundations do or don’t succeed in working together effects entire movements. When foundations don’t agree on strategy and work at cross purposes, grants are made to nonprofit organizations with initiatives that may be counterproductive to larger social change goals.

My earliest learning experience with this had to do with funding strategies in African sustainable agriculture. In 2005, awareness was just growing about how climate induced drought would affect large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa. A significant large foundation was investing untold resources in genetically modified drought tolerant seeds and distributing these in pilot projects in various regions. GMO’s were a broad concern across environmental philanthropy at the time and several foundations were funding campaigns to raise consumer awareness, while others had invested great care in building relationships with Indigenous leaders in parts of rural Africa and worked hard to advance the concept of cultural biodiversity and natural mitigation and adaptation climate strategies. As you might imagine, these two strategies create significantly different biological outcomes over the long term. One advances biological engineering, the other natural adaptation.

As the executive director of EGA my role was to create understanding about the complex problems of African agriculture and the surrounding competing strategic interventions. After thoughtfully selecting a planning committee of members, we invited a spokesperson representing each strategy to an open forum plenary discussion. At the time this was groundbreaking as dissonant discussion was not always welcome in philanthropy.

Ultimately, what foundations in that room decided around this issue would affect how Africa would practice agriculture in the future. Meanwhile, most African farmers have no idea what philanthropy is, nor that there are conference rooms filled with people in the United States making decisions about how Africans will practice agriculture in a climate impacted world for years to come. Unlike most global public forums, there is no requirement for citizen engagement. Philanthropy conferences are closeted and require the integrity and commitment of the conveners to bring in the representation of outside voices. This is an area where. An evolution in practice is needed industry-wide.

Of course, we did not solve the question of African agriculture at that conference, but what was important for me as a young philanthropy organizer was understanding how important it is to create an atmosphere where grantmakers can respectfully disagree and challenge one another’s ideas.

The World is Watching

Onwards I understood that the best Philanthropy Support Organizations (PSO) keep in mind that it is our job to shape deep critical discussions within philanthropy as these conversations impact millions of lives. What’s critical to the success of this content construction is objectivity. It is not the job of the PSO to have a strongly held opinion about strategy, but to hear dissonance and to structure critical dialogue. This is one of the greatest challenges in the role.

A philanthropy network like the Environmental Grantmakers Association influences many hundreds of billions of dollars in philanthropic capital. Investor networks like Confluence Philanthropy organizes the same amount of philanthropic capital -and- the money in the endowments. Confluence represents over $3.5 trillion in assets under management, $100 billion if that is philanthropic capital. So, while a philanthropy support organization may not have capital to deploy, it is responsible for the influence of billions, if not, trillions of dollars.

As you can see, it is critical that funders understand how important it is to support organizations like these so that they have capable resources to structure these fragile, but powerful, strategic discussions. With strong staffing and organizational infrastructure leaders have the time to spend time with members to deeply understand the goals and strategies of as many of their member organizations as possible

Ultimately what happens around the world depends on the ability of PSO conveners to do their jobs exceptionally well. The power of an effective philanthropy support organization is more influential than that of any one foundation.

I was fortunate enough to attend the UNFCC COP 14 in Poznan, Poland in 2008. Being wintertime, one of the sponsoring organizations provided attendees with a scarf that reads “The world is watching”.  I have hung that scarf behind my desk all these many years as a reminder each day about what I do and whom I serve. You’ll get to see it on our next zoom call .

About the Author: Dana Lanza founded Confluence Philanthropy in 2009 after serving as the Executive Director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA). While at EGA, Dana provided networking services to over 250 grantmaking organizations from across North America and Europe. As director, Dana worked with the Rockefeller Family Fund, and led a then 20-year-old EGA into an independent 501c3 organization. Confluence Philanthropy’s mission is to transform the practice of investing by aligning capital with values of sustainability, equity, and justice. Confluence supports and catalyzes a membership network of private, public and community foundations; family offices; individual donors; and their values-aligned investment advisors representing 260 members – more than $92B in philanthropic assets under management, and over $3.5T in managed capital. Within the membership, Confluence leads a $2 trillion investor coalition for racial equity; and a climate solutions working group of paradigms shifting investors.


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