The Leadership Model of Philanthropy

Earlier this month the Lumina Foundation’s CEO, Jamie Merisotis, posted an insightful blog entry to the SSIR blog, entitled The Leadership Model of Philanthropy. In it he lifts up the characteristics of focus, flexibility, and fortitude, which, he suggests, must be present for grant-making foundations to truly have systemic impact.


For the moment, let’s not get too lathered up about another “model.” Personally, I’m a bit reticent to toss around the “model” label. Solid contributions along a similar line as Jamie’s have referred to catalytic philanthropy, high impact philanthropy, etc. Despite my caution about falling prey to “model-itis,” his points are right on.

I think there are many parallels in grant-seeking organizations who endeavor to “act bigger and adapt better” (language from the Monitor Institute a few years back). For more organizational CEOs and philanthropy executives to embrace this type of thinking, they’ll need to hone their study of whole systems. I hear a growing desire to¬†“take things to scale” but I don’t always see a corresponding understanding of the systems in which the organization exists. Trying to discern the path to scale without an understanding of systems thinking is hollow and the results will undoubtedly fall short.

A better understanding of whole systems thinking will likely result in a bone deep commitment to true collaboration and it will force one to look at the future with a long lens. Further, I believe it changes the conversation with donors–maybe not all donors but certainly those big thinkers who are not so interested anymore in simply supporting one organization because they’re trying to bring about some type of lasting change in people, in society. They’re looking for something bigger than any single organization. That’s systemic change and THAT’s where the power of philanthropy is at its most robust possibilities. Linked to systems thinking, philanthropy can really be catalytic.

That’s not a conversation every executive or philanthropy executive can have comfortably today–nor is it one every donor will welcome. But if you’re not preparing yourself and your colleagues to think this way, you’ll miss growing opportunities to have a truly big and lasting impact.