Anatomy of a Global Donor

“To move from a checkbook donor to a strategic donor, you must have a theory of change.” John Harvey, outgoing Executive Director of Grantmakers Without Borders, shared this nugget of wisdom with a packed house at the start of the 2010 Annual Gw/oB Conference.

In a mere twenty minutes, John Harvey shared photos from icebergs to rabbits that illustrated the key lessons and reflections he gleaned from ten years of working with the network of GWOB members and their grantees.

His critique started with what is missing from the famous idea of Lao Tzu: "Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him For a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, Feed Him For a Lifetime.” He asked us, “What if the lake has been polluted by an upstream gold mine and the fish have all died off?”  How do we go deeper with our analysis of a situation? How do we incorporate context into our analysis of an issue?

He reminded us of our narrow perspective on the world. We need to go deeper and deeper in our understanding of a problem when we develop a theory of change.

Is this so radical? No. But there are a lot of donors who don’t go deep enough.

How do you get there? Here are his main points minus the body parts…

  1. Build expertise over time.
  2. Be open to new ways of thinking about how change happens and how to evaluate it.
  3. Remain curious.
  4. Listen to what you are hearing and not hearing.
  5. Build a stomach for difficult situations.
  6. Remember that our money is just one tool to address change.
  7. Figure out what you can and can’t take on.
  8. Maintain a positive attitude, openness, and trust.
  9. Be patient and dedicated.
  10. Include accountability in your practices.
  11. Embrace a sense of confident humility as you work and learn.

Harvey persuaded me most when he illustrated his points with provocative questions and illustrations that rang true across the global grantmaking terrain. One such question:

“Should social change confirm to three year grant cycles or should grant cycles conform to the pace of change?”

While he admitted that donors can do ‘bricks and mortar’ projects in a shorter time period, I agree that addressing root causes requires a longer attention span from philanthropists.

Thanks John for your leadership, humor and these questions. You have pushed me to engage more honestly as a privileged purveyor of resources across the globe.

Jennifer Astone is a philanthropic consultant with a focus on international giving, community-based change, and Africa, This is my first conference blogging and tweeting experience. In my blog, I plan to address the issues of what does it mean to be privileged purveyor of resources across the globe.

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