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Thought Starter: Philanthropists feel powerless too

Julia Keady,
02 November 2016

I have been working with a fabulous lady in her 70s, and we have been delving into a sector that very few large-scale donors have navigated. In this sector – like many – there are the obvious big players and countless smaller organisations, many of which have never received a direct inquiry from a potential philanthropist.

 

As the advisor handling the phone calls, and also helping the donor meet with sector leaders, research the sector, understand the challenges and opportunities, I find myself equally nurturing some of these smaller organisations through the process. The engagement itself has unintentionally already been one of shared capacity building, as these smaller players witness first-hand what’s involved for a donor trying to learn their sector, and vice versa. 

What has struck me most in this particular project though has been witnessing the depths of powerlessness and helplessness that can be experienced by a donor. Yes, you read right. The donor. 

It has allowed me to reflect on the ubiquitous statement often heard in fundraising and philanthropy circles, that the donor yields all, or too much power. A statement sometimes laced with envy or even disgust. While I have certainly witnessed power being gravely mistreated in the social change sector, if power was a football, I have also witnessed where some donors would also gladly handball it on to someone else. 

Perhaps because power itself comes laden with great responsibility, and it is this heavy sense of responsibility, often felt as duty and obligation, which can be very overwhelming. Unless a donor has been in a position with similar responsibility, it can be a confronting and consuming experience. You can see why it activates the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response. 

With this current client, I have seen her at times become almost frozen or paralysed often as a direct result of the overwhelming nature of choice, of the scale and immensity of the need and distress, of a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness around ‘what could my small contribution achieve?’, and the pervading isolation or lonelineness in navigating a new field. It is an immense privilege to support someone through this vulnerability, provide a space for them to really feel it, and then throw them a life jacket so we can get back on the boat.

Some of these issues are talked about within the sector, and some remain largely unacknowledged, particularly the sense of prevailing loneliness felt at various parts of the project. 

She has now found a sense of comradry with the sector leaders we have met, which has alleviated the sense of isolation from her everyday life, where her family is yet to completely understand (nor care) for the depth or relevance of the issue she seeks to support. As we put some flesh around the research bones, she now has the evidence to show and educate others in her personal sphere, and she finds hope that perhaps they will come along on the journey in time. Again though, this has taken time and she has had to be both patient and brave.

For outsiders looking on, the journey has been slow, but learning the sector is only one part of the project. The other is providing the client the space to not only think, but also feel into the rich and diverse content and conversations. Also time to reflect on where the best impact could be made, and if my client’s philanthropic capacity may extend to being able to further unlock and advance the greatness in this sector by bringing in other philanthropic collaborations. A most humbling experience is the philanthropist’s journey. 

As the advisor handling the phone calls, and also helping the donor meet with sector leaders, research the sector, understand the challenges and opportunities, I find myself equally nurturing some of these smaller organisations through the process. The engagement itself has unintentionally already been one of shared capacity building, as these smaller players witness first-hand what’s involved for a donor trying to learn their sector, and vice versa. 

What has struck me most in this particular project though has been witnessing the depths of powerlessness and helplessness that can be experienced by a donor. Yes, you read right. The donor. 

It has allowed me to reflect on the ubiquitous statement often heard in fundraising and philanthropy circles, that the donor yields all, or too much power. A statement sometimes laced with envy or even disgust. While I have certainly witnessed power being gravely mistreated in the social change sector, if power was a football, I have also witnessed where some donors would also gladly handball it on to someone else. 

Perhaps because power itself comes laden with great responsibility, and it is this heavy sense of responsibility, often felt as duty and obligation, which can be very overwhelming. Unless a donor has been in a position with similar responsibility, it can be a confronting and consuming experience. You can see why it activates the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response. 

With this current client, I have seen her at times become almost frozen or paralysed often as a direct result of the overwhelming nature of choice, of the scale and immensity of the need and distress, of a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness around ‘what could my small contribution achieve?’, and the pervading isolation or lonelineness in navigating a new field. It is an immense privilege to support someone through this vulnerability, provide a space for them to really feel it, and then throw them a life jacket so we can get back on the boat.

Some of these issues are talked about within the sector, and some remain largely unacknowledged, particularly the sense of prevailing loneliness felt at various parts of the project. 

She has now found a sense of comradry with the sector leaders we have met, which has alleviated the sense of isolation from her everyday life, where her family is yet to completely understand (nor care) for the depth or relevance of the issue she seeks to support. As we put some flesh around the research bones, she now has the evidence to show and educate others in her personal sphere, and she finds hope that perhaps they will come along on the journey in time. Again though, this has taken time and she has had to be both patient and brave.

For outsiders looking on, the journey has been slow, but learning the sector is only one part of the project. The other is providing the client the space to not only think, but also feel into the rich and diverse content and conversations. Also time to reflect on where the best impact could be made, and if my client’s philanthropic capacity may extend to being able to further unlock and advance the greatness in this sector by bringing in other philanthropic collaborations. A most humbling experience is the philanthropist’s journey.

The Xfactor Collective is a community of pre-vetted specialist consultants who help social change makers achieve their social mission. We have a diverse range of specialists across 300+ areas of specialisation, and this article was written by our Specialist Consultant Julia Keady. To find out more about working with Julia, or how the Collective can help you, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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