Note from Beth: I’m hosting a small army of guest bloggers, grantmakers, who are attending the GeoFunders National Conference taking place this week in Seattle. The GEO community is united by a common drive to challenge the norm in pursuit of better results. GEO’s 2012 National Conference shares a range of perspectives and new ideas for smarter grantmaking that leads to better results and presents opportunities for participants to learn from the wisdom and experience of their peers. If you’re not attending and curious what funders are learning, you’ll have an opportunity to read some of the ideas and questions being discussed right here on this blog.
Could John Wayne be the world’s most effective philanthropist? – guest post by Jim Coutre
“Social change is incremental at best,” Peter Karoff loves saying, quoting Mike Sviridoff and wagging his finger. It’s a marathon. Like many in this field, I’ve become exceedingly interested in figuring out what it takes to move change along faster. Thus, I went into Jonah Lehrer’s GEO breakfast plenary looking for insight into how to spark creative new solutions to the inextricable barriers that impede rapid change.
Jonah gave a number of wonderful examples of where and how break-through ideas are born. He pointed to the power of “outsider” thinking that works without the conscious and subconscious constraints that come with experiences; and he reminded us of Albert Einstein’s belief that “creativity is the residue of wasted time.” But for me, the morning’s top takeaway was not about coming up with the newest, freshest idea. While it would be wonderful if each and every donor came up with their own game-changing ideas, I don’t recommend we hold our collective breath for that to happen.
In the space between the revolutionary ideas, what can help a philanthropist be more successful in bringing about their vision for social change?
We are not talking about the shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude of the John Wayne character, Rooster Cogburn, in the 1969 western. (Although, isn’t it fun to picture Bill Gates on horseback, sporting an eye-patch and six shooter?) Grit is the “perseverance and passion for long term goals” as defined by Angela Duckworth whose work has brought Grit into the academic spotlight within the past few years. Beyond just having a vision, Grit is about having the motivation to overcome obstacles and the persistence and zeal to do so time and time again in pursuit of that vision. Jonah made the concept real by telling the story of an unlikely athlete who ultimately revolutionized his sport by failing to accept that his goal was unrealistic.
At The Philanthropic Initiative, when we look back at donors with a history of both quick wins and long-term successes, we often talk about it in terms possessing both the restlessness that drives them deeper and the patience needed to keep them committed throughout the long-haul to an often elusive vision.
We have seen that without restlessness, the fire can dwindle. The rigor can overshadow the relevance, and shelves can become full with pages of good intelligence never reflected in decision making. And at the same time, we’ve seen that without patience, donors can suffer fatigue. They can lose their love for learning. They can throw hope wildly at each emerging trend in a philanthropic whack-a-mole game.
Can Grit be learned and cultivated? Both Lehrer and Duckworth believe so. (And giving even more hope to a guy like me – there is no direct correlation between Grit and intelligence.)
By acknowledging the power of Grit – and assessing it in their own work – perhaps donors can better position themselves to remain sharp, inventive and invested in the slow work that is social change. And perhaps they’ll be more likely to face society’s most pressing problems head on with Rooster Cogburn’s “If you’re lookin’ for trouble, I’ll accommodate ya.”
Jim Coutre is a Partner at The Philanthropic Initiative, an ally and consultant to individuals, foundations and corporations looking to advance both the art and science of their philanthropy in pursuit of deep social impact.