The following is a conversation between Leslie Pine, the Managing Partner of The Philanthropic Initiative, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Leslie Pine, Managing Partner at The Philanthropic Initiative

Denver: The Philanthropic Initiative was founded on the belief that philanthropy has a power to transform. TPI provides consulting and program management services to help individuals, families, foundations, and companies increase the impact of their philanthropy while also working to promote effective philanthropy across the sector. And here to discuss all of this in some detail, it’s a pleasure to have Leslie Pine, the managing partner of The Philanthropic Initiative

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Leslie!

Leslie: Thank you, Denver. It’s a pleasure to be with you. 

All different types of funders, individuals, families, companies, others could achieve more impact with their philanthropy if they had the right support and the right assistance. 

Denver: Tell us a little bit more about the mission of TPI and some of your history as well. 

Leslie: Well, we started 32 years ago, 1989, and our mission has been pretty much the same since we opened our doors, and it’s really to help funders increase the impact of their philanthropy.

We were really founded by an amazing visionary man named Peter Karoff. And I happened to land on his doorstep when we opened our doors, so I’ve been there since the beginning. And Peter had this idea that all different types of funders, individuals, families, companies, others could achieve more impact with their philanthropy if they had the right support and the right assistance. 

And as you know, there’s a long history, especially in the United States, but all over the world of strategic philanthropy, large foundations like Rockefeller and Ford and Carnegie that have had professional staff and they have been able to think strategically about what they want to accomplish with their philanthropy. And our thought was: Couldn’t we offer that service to funders that did want to achieve more, that felt they could accomplish some things with their philanthropy if they had the right strategy in place and the right way of approaching their philanthropy? 

So that was really the beginnings of TPI. And the idea of providing consulting and program management services along with field-building and thought leadership – that was also really part of our mission from the very beginning. We really felt there was an important role to play in inspiring and encouraging more and better philanthropy and building the field of philanthropy. So that’s something that we’ve done sometimes through grant support. Sometimes we just try to carve out time and resources as we can to do that type of work. 

Denver: Cool. So, everybody has their own personal philanthropic advisor when they’re working with you. So let me start with an individual, Leslie. And let’s say, I come to you. I’m a donor and I support a variety of causes. Maybe some in response to solicitations I received. Maybe my buddy asked me to contribute to a cause. Maybe I give to certain charities every single year. 

What would you have me consider that would help make my philanthropy more strategic and create greater impact? 

Leslie: Such a great question. Our starting point in many of our conversations with funders of all types is: What is it that they most want to see change in the world? It could be in their own community. It could be their region of the country or another country. It could be a broader issue that affects the entire planet, could be something like climate change. It could be around a disease that’s affected a family member, breast cancer, or some other disease where they really want to play a role in helping to find a cure. 

It could be any number of big ideas or smaller ideas, smaller ways of having an impact. But it’s really that starting point. What are people really passionate about? What do they care most about? 

And then that’s the starting point to then say: Well, if that’s what you care most about, what kind of learning process do you want to go through to really learn more about what’s already being done about that issue that you care about? What’s working well? What role is government playing? What roles could philanthropy play?” So those are some of the beginning questions, and then it goes on from there, of course. 

Funders come to philanthropy at all different points, but many of them get started in a very simple way. They become a donor.

Denver: And as we go on from there, let’s do that. Let’s talk about the TPI Philanthropic Curve. What is that? What does it signify? 

Leslie: Thank you for asking about that. We love this construct and it’s something that our founder Peter Karoff created many, many years ago. It was this idea that funders come to philanthropy at all different points, but many of them get started in a very simple way. They become a donor. Perhaps they’ve always been involved in, as you said, giving to some local charities or giving to things that their friends are involved in and have asked them to support. But really becoming a donor and thinking of themselves as a donor can be a starting point for many.

And then there can be this next phase along the curve of getting organized. So we talk to people who say, “You know, I get so many requests in the mail. I put them all in a shoebox. I have no way of organizing all of it and thinking about what I care about most, what I want to support the most.” And so, it’s really starting to get organized and maybe thinking about different categories of giving. And again, what are people most interested and most passionate about?

And so that leads into this next phase of our Philanthropic Curve of becoming more strategic. Thinking about vision and goals and what philanthropy can accomplish, and that can lead to then focusing on specific social issues, environmental issues, thinking about: What would it take to start to achieve some long-term results?

We’d encourage donors to think longer term. Sometimes, efforts don’t pay off in the first year or the first couple of years and you really need to stay with things. Sometimes it makes sense to change course. And so that’s where evaluation comes into play. 

Leveraging resources is another phase along the curve. We think it’s important for funders to think about the question of: What does it take to leverage long-term change? How can philanthropy really help to achieve a tipping point perhaps? Or join with other funders or other funding sources to achieve more impact? 

And then the highest level of the curve– when Peter Karoff first created it, he called the highest level of the curve ‘Nirvana.’ We call it giving high impact. 

Denver: I think that was a very, very good change. Let me pick up on one of the phases that you’ve talked about and that’s strategic. Strategic philanthropy, which has pretty much been a bellwether for this sector for many years, has been under a lot of critique of late. And part of that is that people have looked at it as maybe being a little too inflexible, opaque. And often, they believe that it fails to adequately support the diverse communities that they’re meant to serve. 

Have you been sensing anything particularly over the course of this last year and a half in terms of how people are looking at strategic philanthropy and how it may or may not be evolving?

Leslie: Yes. Great question, Denver. It’s such a sensitive topic these days. And I completely agree with you. There is this perception, at least in some conversations, that strategic philanthropy means being very prescriptive. Donors figuring out what they think the solutions are and imposing those on nonprofit organizations, on communities, on others who are really trying to work on change on the ground, perhaps.

And we don’t define strategic philanthropy in that way. So, to us, there’s a disconnect there. Our definition of strategic philanthropy goes back to a wise leader in the field from a few decades ago, someone you probably are familiar with – Paul Ylvisaker. He was a professor and a really brilliant thinker about philanthropy and he defined philanthropy as finding systemic solutions to underlying causes of poverty and other social ills.

And to us, that’s really what philanthropy is all about. We also sometimes describe it as “society’s risk capital.” And it’s an opportunity to really listen and learn to people on the ground, to people with all different perspectives on the issues that a funder cares about, and to learn from those perspectives and then figure out what strategies make sense.

Those strategies, in the best of situations, in our opinion, are not prescriptive. They really do build on what leaders and experts and others who are very tied into the community. Those with lived experience. Those who really are experiencing the direct impact of systemic problems. Getting input from all of those sources, we think is really critical to effective philanthropy.

Denver: You just said that it is society’s risk capital. So, by and large, generally speaking, do you think philanthropy is taking enough risks right now?

Leslie: I would have to say no to that question. I do think there are some great examples of it. We often talk to funders who love the idea of funding innovation, taking some risks. And then sometimes when it comes right down to it, they get gun shy and they really are nervous about funding anything that’s not clear what the outcome of it will really be. Or if they can’t see that tangible, immediate outcome, they sometimes will back away from certain types of things.

So I do think that there’s a great opportunity for philanthropy to step up more, to take more risks and to really do some serious thinking about some of the huge issues that are facing our world. 

Denver: There’s a wonderful tension going on between taking enough risk and then also putting some capital to proven things. A lot of people also don’t want to take evidence-based solutions and then just fund those. They want the shiny new button. 

And you say, “Well, we don’t have to rediscover everything.  Some of this stuff is working. How do we scale it?” So it is really a fascinating dynamic going on in the sector right now. 

Leslie: Well, that’s a great point. And there was a time when there was more likelihood that philanthropy could fund some new efforts, new models, help to create things, evaluate them, demonstrate effectiveness. And then government was more likely to then step in and say, “OK. That’s a proven approach. We’re going to put resources towards it. Expand it, really fund it with government resources.”

I think, in recent years, there’s been less likelihood of that happening. And so, that changes the equation for philanthropy to some extent. And it’s a very important question for funders to think about what roles can they play in both funding innovation, but also expanding efforts that have demonstrated effectiveness or at least show great promise.

Denver: And that’s often where the TPI steps in. Let me get your take on a number of other issues because you provide guidance in so many. We know that there is a huge intergenerational transfer of wealth that is going on, which, of course, means families. How should families be thinking about and preparing for this?

Leslie: We’ve been focusing on this issue virtually since we started in 1989. And that transfer of wealth is something that we have seen coming and we have seen it happening certainly in the last couple of decades. And it’s a very interesting opportunity for families to really come together in some really important ways. 

And philanthropy can be such a great way to instill values within the family, within the next generations of the family, around philanthropy and making a difference in the world. It can be a way to really bring family members together, to learn together, to think about creative solutions perhaps, or other approaches to philanthropy, and to work together on issues that the whole family cares about.

That said, there are, of course, many challenges and tensions that arise within families. Every family is different, of course, and those issues can arise in different ways and at different points in time. But we see that with so many of the families that we work with, sometimes it doesn’t happen immediately. 

But over time, there can be issues around maintaining interest and engagement in the foundation if there’s a family foundation. There can be different opinions among different generations on what the foundation should focus on or what’s most important. There can be generational shifts in all kinds of expectations. And also things like time constraints, family commitments, how much time people can put towards their family’s foundation.

So, a lot of complexities that can arise as families grow and evolve. And then, of course, those tie right into various governance and policy issues that really every family needs to figure out what the right solutions are for that family. We don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all. Every family truly is unique. We say you’ve seen one family foundation and you’ve seen one family foundation.

Denver: You’re absolutely right. And I’m so glad you brought up governance because sometimes we overlook governance, but a really effective philanthropy starts with good governance. And when you get sort of the rules of the road or the container down, then it’s a lot easier to make decisions within that than just trying to do it in sort of a freeform way.

Leslie, as the old saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. And I think we’re seeing a little bit more of going together since the pandemic in particular. Our donors are beginning to collaborate some. What have you found to be some of the elements that help make these donor collaborations successful?

Leslie: I love that question. It’s something that so many in the field of philanthropy are talking about and have been talking about for a long time. Actually, doing it is a lot harder than talking about it. We all know. But funder collaboratives can be extremely powerful.

And we’ve been involved in them in many different ways – forming giving circles and learning circles, other types of funder collaboratives. We do often find that one thing that really is very helpful in bringing together a group of funders is having a champion. One or a couple of folks that really want to make it happen, are very good at networking and listening and not necessarily imposing their own ideas. And who really want to bring folks together in that way. 

Another variable that we find has been very helpful is when funders come together, first to learn together. And to maybe look at a specific issue that they all are concerned about and go through a bit of a research and learning process. And then over time, figure out: Do they want to do some joint funding? Do they want to think about an overarching strategy where perhaps different funders can fund a different piece of that strategy? 

But they don’t necessarily have to pool their funds into one single collaborative fund. That can get very challenging. Partly– going back to your previous point– partly because of governance issues. Every funder might have a board that they need to bring along. And the board isn’t necessarily going to agree to something that a particular family member or staff member is involved in. 

So that’s where things do get challenging. If there are common goals and a way to really bring people together around those common goals, those efforts can really be highly effective over time.

And so, that notion of strategic corporate philanthropy as being that combination of achieving social impact and also doing things that make sense for the company… finding that alignment is the key. 

Denver: I completely agree. As a matter of fact, I’ve been observing more and more nonprofit organizations are bringing their donors together on a regular basis. 

One that comes to mind is The Freedom Fund, which is based in the UK. They’re trying to end modern-day slavery. But I spoke to their CEO and he says, “Oh, we bring our donors together once a year to talk about things.” 

So there isn’t any prescription in that other than getting them all together in the room and sharing ideas.  Stuff happens when you bring people together. It’s organic. It’s not orchestrated in a forced fit way. You just let it happen.

How about corporate philanthropy? How is that changing particularly in the course of the last year and a half or so? 

Leslie: Well, I love corporate philanthropy as a whole area in and of itself that has some unique elements. As we all know, one of the things that’s unique about corporate philanthropy is that companies understand the importance to their various stakeholders, of being involved in the community and putting resources towards philanthropy. And at the same time, they know that they need to rationalize those efforts and those resources and they need to make the case sometimes to their shareholders or to their board. 

And so, that notion of strategic corporate philanthropy as being that combination of achieving social impact and also doing things that make sense for the company… finding that alignment is the key. 

And I think in the last year and a half, it’s been a very interesting time for corporate philanthropy. Certainly, for many companies, it’s been a very challenging time. Retail companies, for example, have really struggled during the pandemic and perhaps have had to cut back on their philanthropic resources with the idea that they can resurrect those efforts as things start to move forward in a more positive way. 

But one thing that we’re seeing among companies that we’re working with is an increasing emphasis on racial equity and efforts to advance racial equity. Companies, even more perhaps than other funders, really understand the importance of that to their long-term success as a company and are putting resources towards it, not just philanthropic resources, but that’s a piece of it. And it’s a really interesting time in terms of corporate involvement in racial equity efforts. 

Denver: And it does seem like advocacy has become part of the toolkit of corporate philanthropy. And boy, I can remember when being neutral was what you did. You didn’t do any harm, but you didn’t step up and take a stand. And we see what Coca-Cola did with the Georgia voting rights bill and stuff like that and how effective this is going to be for their business. I mean, this is all in real time that we’re seeing right now. But you do say that sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option and companies really do need to step up and in big ways, particularly around racial equity, but other issues as well. 

Leslie: And leadership is key. Going back to my earlier comment that I love corporate philanthropy, one of the reasons that it’s exciting to me is because companies have so much that they can bring to the table beyond just the financial resources. 

They have communications capabilities. They have executives that have a voice that can really make a difference if they’re willing to step out and speak to the issues that they’re focusing on and that they care about. And there are other resources within companies as well. Employees bring so much to the table in terms of their skills and interests and desire to be involved in the community. So when you can put all of those pieces together in the right ways, that’s the best of strategic corporate philanthropy. 

Denver: That’s so well said. And it’s interesting just harkening back to what we said a few minutes ago – nonprofits do the risk capital and they take that evidence and they turn it over to government and government scales it. Now, governments no longer doing that. 

But you know who can scale? It’s big business. International companies, they can scale an impact. So it’s almost as if they’re stepping into a role that government has advocated or hasn’t had the bandwidth in which to do, because they can be incredibly effective. And not in just a community, but across the globe, if they put their mind to it. They really know how to get it done.

Leslie: Such a great point. 

Denver: In addition to focusing on philanthropy here in the United States, you guys do a lot of stuff internationally as well through your Center for Global Philanthropy. 

Tell us a little bit about the Center and maybe how philanthropy is different and distinct in other parts of the world than what we’re accustomed to here in the US. 

Leslie: Well, we’ve always cared a lot about philanthropy, not just in the United States, but across borders and throughout the globe. And in 2010, we decided to formalize some of those efforts in the form of our Center for Global Philanthropy. 

It’s really been the home for some of our research and thought leadership work to look at what’s happening around the world in terms of philanthropy, and philanthropy takes different forms in different parts of the world. We all know that there are certain challenges that arise. And depending on where you’re working in the world, foundations can look different. Some parts of the world foundations are more about operating foundations than grant-making foundations. So they can just look very different. 

And corporate philanthropy, to your point, can look different in different parts of the world. And multinational companies really have done a lot of work to figure that out over the years, on how they can really implement effective strategies and modify those to work in different locations, different cultures; understanding the importance of being involved at the local level, and understanding the culture, and understanding the nonprofit or NGO sector and what works in different places. 

So, it’s a complicated set of questions and it is an area where we’ve done some very interesting research over the years, and also some convenings. In fact, we’re organizing our second international philanthropy symposium. That’s going to be a virtual symposium this time around in September, early September. 

And we will be bringing together– we’re partnering with another group called New England International Donors (NEID). And we did this about three years ago. We’re doing it again. We’re going to be bringing together funders and others from all over to really look more deeply at some of the issues and challenges facing international philanthropy.

Denver: Oh, fantastic. I’ll keep an eye out for it. 

Let me ask you about leadership in a crisis because TPI, like everybody else, this has been a crisis. There’s no question about it. The last 15 months, 16 months has been something. What have you found to be the keys to leadership in a crisis? And from this whole experience, Leslie, what takeaways will you have that will inform your leadership going forward?

Leslie: Well, certainly, one of the keys is listening. And it goes back to some of what we’ve already talked about, but we’ve seen so many leaders in philanthropy step up in ways that really acknowledged the importance of listening to their grantee partners, listening to the community. 

It’s really been such an interesting time of funders trying to figure it out: What can they do to really help nonprofit organizations, communities, individuals, and families to get through the pandemic? And then the racial equity issues at the same time have really become front and center for so many funders and certainly within the field of philanthropy. So, leadership on all levels. But I think it all starts with really being good listeners and engaging in ways that are respectful and that are compassionate and understanding of the challenges that so many are facing. 

When it comes to racial equity work, the leadership is really around taking a step back and thinking a bit differently about the role of philanthropy. And thinking forward in very visionary ways – What roles can philanthropy play in addressing some of these entrenched, systemic, and structural issues that just don’t seem to go away? So, how can philanthropy really play a role in accelerating change? And it’s time for that. And I think so many in the field really understand that.

There’s an important role for philanthropy to play in bridging divides of all sorts, bridging political divides, bridging the wealth divide, lifting other divides and figuring out how to bring people together around what people have in common and what they care about that they can seek common ground.

Denver: Philanthropy has two issues. I guess it has one where it can use its assets to try to do what you just said. But it also needs to look in the mirror and look at the sector itself. And how are we contributing to systemic racism by our policies, our procedures, our history, et cetera.

So, that’s one where you have to do two things at one time. And probably in looking at ourselves, it might even be more important because you got to do that first before you can do the second one really well.

So, well, let me pick up on that and close with this, Leslie. This has been such an incredible year, between the pandemic, those issues of racial equity and racial justice, not to mention the January 6 attack on the Capitol. How do you think this confluence of events is going to shape philanthropy over the next decade?

Leslie: There are two areas that I think need more attention. And I do think that various leaders in the field of philanthropy are giving more attention to them. And the two that I would point to are: one, movement building, helping to build social movements. 

Because when you look historically at how change has happened around things like environmental issues, things– other social issues where we can point to real progress, it’s really required a social movement that has leadership that engages the community at the grassroots level or more than the community, but from all over at the grassroots level. 

It’s about coalition building. It’s about being open to new and innovative ideas. It’s so many different elements that come together in effective social movements. And there’s a real important role for philanthropy in supporting those efforts, I believe.

And secondly, your point about the January 6 horrible event and the risks that we’re all looking at in terms of our democracy, I do think that there’s an important role for philanthropy to play in bridging divides of all sorts, bridging political divides, bridging the wealth divide, lifting other divides and figuring out how to bring people together around what people have in common and what they care about that they can seek common ground. 

And that’s of course, a tremendous challenge right now. Not clear at all what the pathway is towards that, but I think that’s an important role for philanthropy to play. And I think those two pieces are very interconnected — the social movements and the building bridges among different groups.

Denver: Those are two critical pieces and two wonderful pieces to close on. And sometimes, the media, you and I doing this being the exception, certainly is not contributing to common ground. They seem to be so divisive. And I sometimes turn on the TV very rarely, but it looks like I’m just looking at two locker rooms before a championship game. And we’re just demonizing the other side and that’s the business model. And unfortunately, that’s the diet that all the American people are being fed. 

Tell us about the TPI website and some of the information visitors will find if they should stop by. 

Leslie: Thank you, Denver. We have a wonderful website, And we do have a lot of resources on our website that we encourage folks to find and use.

We have resources for family philanthropies. We have resources around a theme that we’ve done a lot of work on over the years, ramping up foundations that are going to be ramping up in size or that want to ramp up in terms of impact. We’ve created a couple of guides for the field that are on our website. We have other resources on getting started, on finding your passion, on intergenerational giving. So many different issues. 

And people can go to the resource section and search for different themes and topics and find all kinds of resources there. And we do have more information on our website about TPI as well.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks Leslie for being here today, it was such a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Leslie: Such a pleasure to be with you, Denver.

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