Properties of Transformational Philanthropy

Excerpt from Inspired Philanthropy: Your Step-by-Step Guid to Creating a Giving Plan and Leaving a Legacy, by Tracy Gary, 3rd edition, Jossey Bass, 2007 (from the report “Transformational Philanthropy” by Duane Elgin, Tracy Gary, John Levy and Elizabeth Share) Used by permission.


Properties of Transformational Philanthropy

In the mid-1990s, the National Network of Grantmakers reported that only about 5 percent of American foundation funding was addressing social change. Most funding was still focused on alleviating the symptoms of problems and not the source of the problems themselves. Meanwhile, the major threats to the planet—disease, war, poverty, and environmental degradation—called for greater attention and solution. A new kind of philanthropy was called for—one that worked at a higher level of reflection, analysis, strategy, and funding.

One of the clearest descriptions of transformational philanthropy and how it differs from traditional philanthropy comes from Fran Korten, who was for 20 years a program officer with the Ford Foundation in Asia and is now the Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network:

Transformational philanthropy is for organizations pursuing a large vision of social change—organizations that see the depth of the ecological and social crisis that is upon us and are working to bring about a deep shift in consciousness in the way we live and in the possibilities we can see for our collective future. Transformational philanthropy is willing to be more daring—to be less specific in its outcomes and more holistic in its frame. As we think about consciousness change, we have to be prepared to pursue long-term goals. Much of traditional philanthropy is aimed much more at the short-term and at more concrete objectives. Communications and convening play a bigger role in transformational philanthropy because of the importance of shifting consciousness and providing support and connections for people pursuing pioneering visions and actions.

Peter Copen, President of the Copen Family Fund and founder of iEarn (an Internet-based initiative technologically linking teachers and students around the world to work together on social and environmental projects) adds:

"Transformational philanthropy means having a large vision, one that will create a new paradigm – a paradigm that will exponentially reduce suffering (and enhance the evolution) of people and the planet. It also means asking some big and important questions and having the courage to fund projects that live within those questions, not knowing how they will turn out. Why? Because a new paradigm cannot be adequately described or conceived by the language and concepts of the old one."

The following are nine properties of transformational initiatives that have emerged from wide-ranging conversations in the field.

  • Recognize that we have entered a time of global change and a historical window of opportunity
  • Take a whole-systems, integral perspective
  • Build strength by actively embracing diversity
  • Tell a bigger story about the nature and purpose of life
  • Bring a reflective consciousness into the functioning of systems
  • Foster self-organization at the grassroots scale
  • Provide leadership that ignites a belief in transformational change
  • Approach change in transformational ways
  • Recognize and appreciate multiple ways of knowing

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