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Strategic Philanthropy

Approaching Philanthropy with a Beginner’s Mind: Five Questions for New Perspectives that Deliver

By February 17, 2018May 2nd, 2022No Comments

Is it possible that some of the most inspired, effective solutions to the most intractable challenges could come from nothing? As explained by Zen monk and teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, who re-introduced the concept of “beginner’s mind” to the western world, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Suzuki’s teachings have inspired millions across all walks of life and industries.

At The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), we experience and witness the power of the beginner’s mind on a regular basis. Some donors come to us with ambitious goals but are overwhelmed by the complexity of issues they’d like to address, and by the challenge of defining a strategy that will create deep-rooted change in the world. In our work with clients, we often tap into the knowledge and ideas of experts, practitioners, and others who bring different perspectives to the table. We also strive to approach every situation with a beginner’s mind – an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions about solutions to social problems – and we encourage our clients to do the same. Through TPI Idea Labs and other approaches, we help our clients think big, ask the right questions, and consider ideas that may contradict conventional wisdom, and thus get at their own right answers as they work to create unique and powerful legacies.

As you consider launching or ramping up your own philanthropic endeavors in the future, consider a few of these approaches and envision where they might take you:

1. Find out what the future is asking you.

Inspired by futurist Mark Stevenson, I like this challenge because it requires you to put aside the past and present. If you desire change, what is happening now is not working. Or perhaps it’s working, but you can see disruption on the horizon. Consider where current trends point, not only within your walls, but within your industry or field of interest and in the markets and communities you serve. Be able to have a “future-literate” conversation.

2. Take one step at a time.

Suzuki’s spiritual practice starts with one step, one breath at a time, and the same applies to creating change. Often the first step is to define the change you want to see, and to do so with optimism. Don’t rush this, but keep at it steadily until it is right. The result is a point on which to focus, against which anything extraneous to your primary purpose can be set aside. By framing their long-term goals effectively and then enlisting ideas and input from a variety of sources, TPI clients often gain critical insights that inform their strategic thinking.

3. Use your “don’t know” mind. Don’t pre-judge.

Once you articulate your goals, don’t rush into the future carrying only what you know now. You are seeking real change, and the right answers may be counter-intuitive at first. Sometimes an obvious fix is the furthest thing from a real solution. Allow space for new ideas and new concepts, for genuine dialogue and exploration. Or in the words of Mark Stevenson’s League of Pragmatic Optimists, “engineer serendipity.”

4. Look at experience from fresh perspectives.

Your own experience clearly has value, but re-examine it for evidence you might need to convince others – even if you are in the driver’s seat. What are others’ experiences and expertise? Are there experts in fields that seem dissimilar but have insights that could lead to real innovation? Remember that the best solutions are not action for action’s sake, but action that achieves forward motion towards the goal.

5. Think long-term, knowing there will be adjustments along the way.

Change requires risk. Risk requires managed experimentation. It’s okay to think small, testing ideas to gain data on how they can be improved and to identify how they might be scaled up efficiently. As one wise philanthropy leader once said, change is incremental at best. Do not lose sight of your optimism, and embrace the lessons that guide you to a stronger outcome.

In closing, I’d like to offer a comment from Stanford scholar and prognosticator, Lucy Bernholz, whose Blueprint 2018 is fresh in the minds of many as we move further into the new year. Bernholz makes the case that the three powers shaping our communities are our governments, our markets, and our civil society – and that the third has been squeezed into a minor role over the past few decades. This third sphere, driven largely by philanthropy, is arguably more critical than ever, and in need of strengthening and expansion as we meet the future. As Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” I am encouraged by our community of philanthropists who are, by nature, optimists working to shape the future to reflect the best of what is possible, and the best of what we can be.