Philanthropy: It’s Not (Just) About the Money

I recently received a call from the president of a major foundation about to launch a $45 million dollar collaborative giving initiative with some other foundations. He was noodling through the governance issues and decision-making dynamics, grappling with questions like:

  • Should the folks putting in more money to the pool have more say?
  • If not, how do you realistically balance that out when it comes time to make tough choices about who to fund or focus areas?
  • How do you set the rules and norms for those around the table?
  • How do you think in more complete ways about what everyone brings to the table?

I told him what I’ve often told others: don’t fixate on the money as you think about who is around the table, and how to make the best decisions for your mission. The best funders (heck, the best folks in any sector) keep in mind that financial capital is only one form of value, and though obvious, necessary, measurable, and immensely alluring, sometimes it is in fact the least valuable asset for shaping an initiative.

In philanthropy you’ll often hear of the “5 T’s” expected from a board member of an organization: Time, Talent, Treasure, Ties, and Testimony. When I’m gathering a team together for a board or project, I also keep in mind a somewhat more expansive list of traits, influenced by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on different forms of capital (read more here or here).

My list includes:

  • Financial capital (money, low interest loans, etc)
  • Social / Political capital (connections, social status, networks, diplomatic skills)
  • Intellectual capital (what one has learned, competencies accrued via formal or informal means)
  • Cultural capital (familiarity with cultural figures, creative frameworks, languages, art)
  • Spiritual / Existential capital (wisdom or special capacities, practices, embodied knowing, and perspectives brought about by spiritual or philosophical inquiry)

These are not mutually exclusive, and there are lots of variations on these categories out there in the world. I want to be careful to note that I use the term “capital” here not in a limited capitalistic sense of some finite thing to be bought and sold in a marketplace; but as a conceptual shorthand so these additional elements are understood as immensely valuable assets in and of themselves, to be deployed in a form of exchange or contribution to an endeavor. If you hate the term “capital” you might also think of these as superpowers, often accrued with practice, dedication, unique circumstances, or effort.

Want some examples?

Think for a moment, of someone who has a lot of spiritual capital, but little financial capital (on the extreme end, perhaps a monk or cloistered nun). Think of someone who has a great deal of political capital, but very little spiritual capital (such as your least favorite, most venal politician).

And let’s return to Mr. Foundation President’s quandary. Nonprofit leaders often scramble over themselves to chase down big money donors. This is all well and good, but a wise leader will seek a diversity of perspectives, balancing many forms of capital around that table. There may be a board member with little money who is unable to meet the financial “give or get” targets expected of board members, but this person may bring much needed cultural capital or spiritual capital that surfaces blind spots, opportunities, or important ways to understand and frame what an initiative is trying to accomplish.

Work to make sure that money doesn’t rule the day, that your processes, policies, and norms honor the many other forms of skill and wisdom that will make the project live up to its potential.

Look around you. Think about the companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities you are a part of.

  • Do they have the balance of “capital” they need?
  • Who (or what) is missing?
  • What do you bring to the table?
  • Is there a category you’d like to evolve or work on?

Good luck. Get out there. And remember: if we’re going to move the world forward, it really is about more than just money.


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