Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Tribute

Whenever I conduct a workshop, which I did earlier this week in Chicago, I am touched by the dedication of those in attendance, both the advancement professionals and the academic leaders who come to better understand how the exercise of their responsibilities might create more philanthropic opportunities for the disciplines entrusted to them. Most of them work with very modest budgets and under less than ideal circumstances but they do come to complain or make excuses. They acknowledge the limitations they labor under while manifesting a determination to work through or around them. When they have a chance to speak, either during the workshop or at one of the breaks, they do use the time to dwell on all they struggle against but to ask what is possible given what they have to work with. As I listen to them, I am reminded why philanthropy continues to work despite the shortcoming of institutions, be it the short-sightedness of some who lead them or the propensity of their cultures to recognize and respond to change.

I define philanthropy as “a compact between donors and doers to get something of mutual interest done.” In these workshops and conferences, I see doers. They listen attentively; they challenge; they ask insightful questions, and they stay on task. Even at breaks, or in the evenings they seek me out asking for more. When the workshop is over, I feel as if they have given me more than I have provided for them.

Since I have written about a growing public skepticism toward institutions, and about the internal behaviors that have led to a loss of external financial and moral support, I thought it only right and fair to pay tribute to those within those places who defy the cultural norms and strive to bring about positive change. These are the people that create new sets of possibilities, that sometimes shuttle between the false expectations of institutional leaders and the misapprehensions of would-be donors, educating both and aligning purposes as they go until new arrangements and new models are created. These are the people that make their institutions better by bringing positive influences in and their supporters wiser by helping them understand how great ambitions are best realized by working through great institutions. They are not just representatives of individual institutions, they are agents of philanthropy. They know that the cannot advance the former without respecting and replenishing the latter.

So, even as the polls show the public trust in institutions in decline, and even as I fret about it and clamor for attention to it, I see real signs of real hope in every conference. I see mission-driven professionals remaining true to their institutions’ founding causes and I pray that life will afford me the continuing possibility of being helpful to them.

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