Insights Into the Mind of an Activist Philanthropist

I’ve truly enjoyed listening to William I. Campbell’s reflections on his experience as an “activist philanthropist” at the Social Impact Exchange 2012 conference.  In his remarks at today’s session, “Engaging Philanthropists in Scaling Impact,” Campbell observed that “scaled impact comes from trusted foundations. We have to build trust. We do that with journeys, not destinations.”

I find this a fascinating statement.  Campbell appears to be challenging the conventional wisdom that outcomes, results, accountability—whatever term the social sector selects to describe the “destination”—are what drive investment.

To be fair to Mr. Campbell, at no point in his remarks did he say that outcomes don’t matter. What I think he was getting at, though, is that outcomes may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. What motivates individual philanthropists beyond the change they want to see occur? Campbell suggests that rich people got that way by being really, really good at something, and that they want to achieve similar mastery of their philanthropic causes.

Again, really interesting stuff. It makes sense to me that the key ingredients in the recipe for engaged philanthropists include desire to effect social change, the financial means, a desire to be involved in a deep and meaningful way, and trust that the organization they are supporting is going to do the right thing.  What I appreciate about Campbell’s perspective is the implication that we all have a lot to learn, no matter who we are or what we’ve achieved in other domains. I believe that building trust involves identification of shared values; our sector needs philanthropists like Campbell who engage not just with money but with their values.

Anne Sherman is Vice President of Nonprofit Strategy at Growth Philanthropy Network and the Social Impact Exchange.