Nonprofits Need Philanthropic Partners Not Moonshots

Nonprofits Need Philanthropic Partners Not Moonshots

We are at the front edge of an unprecedented challenge to the social contract that our government has with the people of this country. Nonprofits are planning and bracing for challenging times ahead and need philanthropic partners, not philanthropy-driven “moonshots” to solve big social problems. Bluntly, moonshots are a distraction. At this moment in time, philanthropy leadership needs to stay closer to the earth.

This week, I read an article in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review with the retread title of Audacious Philanthropy. Written by consultants from a national consulting firm that makes money assisting philanthropic foundations with “big bets,” the article opens with the bold assertion that for philanthropists today, “steady, linear progress isn’t enough; they demand disruptive, catalytic, systemic change—and in short order.”  The article inflates the role philanthropy in fifteen social movements over the last three decades and advocates that philanthropy needs to take more “moonshots.”

The term moonshot is the “disruptive” and “catalytic” metaphor for achieving the inconceivable in a short amount of time. Moonshot was fully defined by the time frame that elapsed between John F Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech on September 12, 1962, and the day that Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. While great mythology, the race to the moon was more complex than an ambitious NASA coupled with a “we can win” national spirit. 

Kennedy’s speech came at a point when the United States was a decade and a half into the development of the technologies that were specifically designed to break us out of earth’s orbit. The “space race” was embedded within the well-funded Department of Defense and space exploration was more of a military strategy than a science discovery strategy.  We cannot uncouple space exploration from the military industrial complex that provided an extensive network of private sector aerospace and defense contractors; the workforce of pilots and aviation experts flowing out of all branches of the military; and pipeline of civilian designers, engineers, and scientists (many of whom were veterans, afforded the benefits of the GI bill). Heck, NASA came into existence in 1958. Indeed, Kennedy delivered a military speech directly targeting our cold war adversaries in the shadows of the Cuban Missile Crisis that unfolded less than a month later.  My point is that the moonshot was a complicated story informed by the context of the times.

Fast forward to today.  What is our current context? In this country, we are standing on the brink of a significant disruption of the government’s social contract with its citizens. There is a political bend in the arch away from social justice and equity. The growing wealth gap and erosion of the middle class; disparities in health, education, and economics; the deepening environmental crisis; the unraveling of rural economies; the victimization and marginalization of immigrants, women, children, and citizens who are LGBT, all point to the dismantling of our nation’s social infrastructure. In the recent words of former Vice President Joe Biden, “We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”

In my last blog post, I introduced five specific investments that nonprofits need from philanthropy today and “shooting for the moon” was not one of the investments (see here).  Yes, it would be great to solve homelessness, but today we need to first, close the budget gap for the only homeless service provider in rural Northwest Connecticut (profiled in my last post) as well as the hundreds of other small nonprofits struggling to address rural poverty nationwide. 

This article is not another debate about responsive grant making versus strategic grant making (refresher here) because that oversimplifies the issue. This article is about the kind of partnerships that need to exist between nonprofits and philanthropy.  Specifically, nonprofits need philanthropic leadership to act in support the sector as it braces offensively (and defensively) for the changes that the current political environment is forcing upon it. Three specific actions include:

Mapping Revenue and Financial Capital: Philanthropists need to help nonprofits map the resources that support local nonprofit ecologies. Such mapping starts with bringing together the thought leaders and facilitating a dialogue asking questions like, What are the sources of money in the region supporting the nonprofits? How is this money distributed? What revenue streams are at risk of decline? How do we raise new revenue and capital? What are the priorities within the local ecology? What is our role as philanthropy in working together to leverage in increase nonprofit capital?  Philanthropic leadership must then translate the discussion into supporting actions in response to the answers.  Perhaps leadership means creating a new round of responsive or coordinated grant making. Leadership could also be a local “shot at the moon” such as going all in on corporate tax reform, leveraging public health and taxation to create new revenues (e.g., sugar beverage tax or tobacco tax), or using the collective influence of philanthropists to pressure public policy makers.

Fostering partnerships: I am not talking about “shotgun weddings” where philanthropy forces mergers between nonprofit agencies.  I am also not talking about another “collective impact” model of creating partnerships through the deadly process of shared action planning and Memoranda of Understanding.  The partnership model that is needed today is to create and resource a safe place for nonprofits to explore what authentic collaboration means.  Philanthropy needs to resource conversations, seed and facilitate opportunities for cohousing, and make readily assessable merger exploration funds.

Investing in strategy development:  Philanthropic leaders also need to build the capacity of nonprofits to plan.  Whether it is providing formal training for nonprofit leaders and boards of directors, creating timely and low-barrier access to strategic plan funding, or developing peer learning cohorts, nonprofits need access to expertise and financial resources to help them develop adaptive strategies and strategic plans. With the storm clouds blowing from the east, I have devoted an entire series to outline the importance of strategy (see here). In this current round of articles, I argue for a sense of philanthropic urgency, engagement, and investment because, without the support of philanthropy, many nonprofits will enter the uncertain future wholly unprepared.    

The point of this article is not to ridicule the oversimplified and self-aggrandizing perspective of audacious philanthropy (although the description fits the profile of what one consultant called delusional altruism – see here).  My point is this. Rather than being egged on by national consultants using terms like catalytic, game-changing, disruptive, and moonshot, today’s context, argues for a more proximal approach to philanthropic leadership. This leadership requires philanthropy to strengthen our local communities. Today’s context is about defending our current social service infrastructure, and if we can get through this window of our history undivided as a nation, then we can be all in on “big-bet” systems change.  Until then, being audacious is to act locally.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.



Photo Credit: jrperes


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.