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Reinventing Philanthropy

The Seattle region faces a defining moment, writes Foundation President & CEO Tony Mestres in Seattle Business Magazine, and now is the time for philanthropy to direct its time and investment to sustainable prevention and systems reinvention.


January 19, 2017

By Tony Mestres, President & CEO, originally published in Seattle Business Magazine

The Seattle region faces a critical, exciting and defining moment.  The criticality centers on our obligation to see the negative trend lines impacting many of our residents, and engage in new approaches to address those trends.  We have the chance to reverse them now, before they become so embedded it will take decades to reverse.  That urgency contrasts with the excitement we should feel around the opportunity to tackle these challenges with an almost ideal set of assets.  Few regions of the country have the wealth creation, innovation, social responsibility and pioneering muscle needed to rewrite the playbook for a healthy community.  That new playbook can chart how the public, private and philanthropic sectors partner in innovative ways to reverse trends in income inequality, education achievement, and the opportunity gap so many kids face, sometimes in unsheltered circumstances.  Future generations will define us by the urgency, courage, and effectiveness, or lack thereof, we demonstrate in taking new approaches now.  Effective Philanthropy, characterized by sustainable prevention and systems reinvention, has emerged as perhaps the most powerful stimulant to igniting those new approaches, and it is unlike the “charity” of yesteryear.

Long ago, charity emerged as a result of people who had done well wanting to give back and help others who had fallen through the cracks.  Those cracks have turned into crevasses.  It is clear, and empirically proven, that we cannot intervene our way out of the challenges facing our region that result in human suffering, especially for our kids.  Mature, thoughtful and collaborative, but brave systems reinvention is our call to action across the spectrum of education, economic inclusion, health and basic needs.

The Road Map Project is an example of reinvention by increasing collaboration between providers, parents, educators and activists working to double the number of students on track to graduate in south Seattle and South King County. A significant early win was helping to ensure all students eligible for the College Bound Scholarship registered for the program, which previously had low turnout. This early win raised awareness about the issue, highlighted the need for increased funding, and built relationships across school districts and providers. 

However, human suffering cannot always wait for systemic change; for some, we must continue to intervene in parallel.  The old intervention-based playbook should be reflected on with the sobering analyses that have emerged. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam concludes that only one-third of the children in our country have any chance at a modest semblance of the American Dream.  We have dissembled the critical developmental experiences for our kids, to the extent that an increasing number of them are left in the lurch.  Communities of color are hit hardest.  The Seattle region’s middle class is being decimated, and even if you put the ethic of human fairness aside, this does not bode well for our region’s global economic competitiveness.  Economists have taught us there is a direct correlation between a region’s economic vibrancy, and its effective resolve to bring residents along on the journey toward prosperity.

Effective Philanthropy, which can be the testing ground and catalyst for change, is defined by avoiding three classic philanthropic fumbles.  The first classic mistake is an “intervention focus” rather than dedication to prevention and systems reinvention.  The second all too typical challenge, as Tom Tierney (CEO of Bridgespan Group) points out, is “wishful thinking,” or the underestimation of a challenge and therefore under-investment in addressing it.  It is not sufficient to say, "If I just give money to these three organizations, the high school dropout rate in Seattle will decline."  Third, and of particular acuity for the Seattle region, we must fight the urge to “fly solo.”  While a great and entrepreneurial community, we are also highly fragmented, and many efforts have not moved the needle due to a lack of alignment across goals and sectors. Effective Philanthropy understands that collaboration will ultimately yield greater social returns for those who have fallen in the cracks.    

The Seattle region fast approaches a tipping point. Philanthropy can be a servant leader, in partnership with amazing companies, successful individuals and families, and public sector partners, to deploy our assets on the biggest disparities of our time, ensuring we tip in the right direction.

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