Filling the gaps is a poor role for philanthropy
At a recent conference of nonprofit leaders, Gov. Ned Lamont said that nonprofits should turn to philanthropy to fill the state’s budget cuts. This might leave the impression that philanthropy isn’t currently doing its share. It also presumes that filling state budget gaps is a good role for foundations and donors in our state. For me, as an audience member that day and as the president of the CT Council for Philanthropy, the state’s largest association of grant-makers, neither of these sentiments ring true.
Two years ago, Connecticut foundations, donors, and businesses gave away more than $5 billion, marking a new high for charitable giving in our state. On top of this, giving from the state’s foundations has escalated, growing annually well above the national average. Despite this growth, there has been a strain on these dollars; with the state cutting back its financial support for crucial nonprofit partners, these organizations had already turned to the philanthropic sector to fill the gaps.
There are roles for government, philanthropy, nonprofits, and businesses in our communities – roles that complement each other and that each sector is uniquely organized to fill. State government is charged with safeguarding the public good – implementing laws to protect and advance the health and well-being of the people and communities in Connecticut.
What is philanthropy’s role? It acts as the early investor of the social sector. Funders and donors don’t have the same constraints as their corporate or government counterparts – no profits to turn, no political constituencies to keep happy – they can take big risks. They can bet on trying out new models and piloting new programs. For example, last year a group of foundations invested in a new approach to connect unemployed and underemployed people to family-sustaining jobs. The pilot had some success, but it’s not there yet. So the group is trying again, funding an improved model in 2020.
The philanthropic sector can commit for the long-term. These are mission-driven donors and organizations that can focus on the long game, providing patient capital to organizations working to move the needle on complicated social issues.
If philanthropy’s dollars are tied up in mending the state’s social safety net, the sector won’t be free to do the valuable things that complement the government’s role.
Philanthropy can invest in social capacity – like supporting the development of new leaders. Philanthropy understands that our communities thrive when we have skilled and active leaders. It also knows that many who have played that role in our state are getting ready to retire. Numerous foundations and donors have been investing in organizations and leadership programs to support emerging leaders, the next generation who can continue to move the state of Connecticut toward a better future.
Finally, philanthropy brings more than money to the table. It brings knowledge and leadership. Most donors and foundations have deep expertise in the issues they aim to impact, and they remember the lessons they’ve learned over years of giving and doing. They can bring others along too, leveraging their networks for greater impact — technical expertise, visibility, and other crucial resources.
Being an early investor, betting big on innovation, providing patient, focused capital to address complicated social issues, and investing in the state’s talent – this is the work of philanthropy. If philanthropy’s dollars are tied up in mending the state’s social safety net, the sector won’t be free to do the valuable things that complement the government’s role.
There is certainly room for the philanthropic community to grow more and do better, but it’s critical to understand that it has been growing and doing better. This community is comprised of strong and trusted collaborative partners – people and organizations eager to make a real difference on important challenges facing the state. We hope the Governor will turn to philanthropy more, not as a financial cure-all, but as a partner to support innovation, offer strategic and long-term focus, and champion new models – all in service of a stronger, thriving Connecticut.
Karla Fortunato is President of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.
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