Blog: We Can Only Imagine What the Next 20 Years Will Bring (April 2016)
By Janis Reischmann, Executive Director of Hauʻoli Mau Loa Foundation
Thinking about the fact that Exponent Philanthropy is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year reminds me of the Beatles lyrics: “It was twenty years ago today / Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play / They’ve been going in and out of style / But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile….”
Thinking of the Beatles reminds me of how much has changed over the years and how much remains the same.
Things that have changed: I still remember the first time I searched the web. It was 1994, and the search was very slow. I remember being puzzled by search engines and wondered how I would use this new technology. I was still writing letters, receiving faxes, talking on the telephone and, of course, meeting people in person. The foundation I worked for required multiple copies of proposals to be submitted by mail or hand delivered. Today, searches are done in a matter of seconds; casual email has replaced the dying art of formal letter writing and as a mode for transmitting documents. Telephone conversations and personal interaction have been taken over by several social media forms.
I worked for a community foundation in 1996, and we were just beginning to understand different ways donors could structure their gifts. We were exploring donor advised funds and considering how they might impact our work and the field. Since then, the variety of giving structures has evolved and grown is some very meaningful ways. It has added complexity to our field. It has also added choices. In part, Exponent Philanthropy’s name change in 2014 (from Association of Small Foundations) is a reflection of the changing organizational forms of philanthropy and a desire to recognize and embrace the evolving forms and structures for carrying out philanthropic intent.
At a personal level, I have changed in my understanding of my various roles in philanthropy and the value I bring to those roles. Twenty years ago I thought if I could just be the smartest person in the room I would be a valuable asset because I would have all the answers. I am not exactly sure when I realized that my pursuit was not only an impossibility, but the wrong goal. Increasingly it has become clear to me how little I know. Now, my greatest value, generally, is asking meaningful questions and figuring out how to frame issues. The answers come from those around me and many times from a collection of people. And whereas I no longer seek to be the smartest person in the room, I do think remaining curious is an important quality that has served me well over the years.
The foundation I work for today, Hauʻoli Mau Loa Foundation, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. While I wasn’t associated with the foundation 25 years ago, I can tell by reading its corporate records how much it has evolved and grown. When it was established, our benefactor had a vision for the foundation, but not a lot of defining boundaries—no mission or focus; no stated program guidelines; no formal structures. Over time, it became clear that, to carry out our benefactor’s vision, we needed to add structure and focus to our work. We were able to translate her individual experiences and create an organizational context that can adapt over time while also retaining important qualities and characteristics.
Our experience, I believe, is common to many philanthropic organizations that are started with good intentions and a vision but limited specific plans. Over time, the vision is translated into practice and, if we do it thoughtfully enough, into an adaptable and growing organization which continues to learn and evolve in ways that are consistent with its inherited DNA.
And that leads me to thinking about a few of the things that have stayed the same over the past 20 years. The first of those things is that the underlying reasons for the establishment of philanthropic organizations—the desire to improve conditions for people and for the planet; the search for justice and for equality; and the expression of our humanity through the creative arts, to name a few—are still relevant and compelling. There is as much work to do in these areas as ever. In fact, often it feels like the issues we are addressing are becoming more challenging and urgent, not less.
Thinking of things that have stayed constant over the years in our work, my mind quickly turns to the consistent admiration that I have felt for the people working at the nonprofit organizations with which we have a funding relationship. These are people that are often working at the ground-level within their communities. The work they do is often stressful. Resources are constrained. There is generally more work to do in a day than there is time in the day to do it. Despite the challenges, they push on. They have a commitment to their mission and to those they serve that is truly remarkable. Certainly for Hauʻoli Mau Loa Foundation, without their work, we would not be having an impact.
Another factor that hasn’t changed over the past 20 years is the need for the field to keep developing and improving, whether it is the publication of professionally researched materials, an expert presentation, creating a nexus for people to come together to learn from others who have a different set of experiences than their own, or linking those with advanced skills with those who are just entering the field. Hauʻoli Mau Loa Foundation has only been a member of Exponent Philanthropy since 2008, but, in that time, I have watched our needs evolve and change. We’ve gone from one staff person to five; our board has grown; we’ve added grantmaking initiatives; and we’ve begun mission investing. With each evolution, we have found from Exponent Philanthropy another set of offerings, resources, or member connections that helps us meet these newly identified needs and opportunities. For that responsiveness, we are grateful.
We can only imagine what the next 20 years will bring us.
And since my mind has turned to rock-and-roll, I will close with a birthday wish from the legend Bob Dylan for all those associated with Exponent Philanthropy over the years and today: “May you always be courageous / Stand upright and be strong / May you stay forever young.”