Rowing the Philanthropic Boat Together: Reflections on Consensus and Civility

A foundation needs trustees who can work together productively, but it does not require that they be unanimous in their opinions or uniform in their outlook. …A foundation’s extraordinary potential for good springs from its board’s ability to act as a collective, to be cohesive in fulfilling its public trust. As Alfred North Whitehead remarked, “No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individuality of his rowing.”

– Margaret Mahoney, “Trusteeship”

Events of the last few weeks have called into question whether public stewards have lost or ceded their capacity to work together in the public interest. Given the focus of my work, I wondered how those who are private stewards of a public trust are managing the same challenge. And while the insightful comments of Maggie Mahoney (above) refer to governing boards, I am also intrigued by our interest and success in working together across staff, board, family, grantee, and colleague lines.

When I realized this issue of Family Giving News was partially devoted to our favorite philanthropic quotes, I decided to look to some of my great teachers in philanthropy for inspiration. If you’ve ever read or heard me (ever!), you know I am always looking for help in the words of the many thoughtful and articulate philanthropic practitioners – today’s grantmakers and, especially, those who lit the path we follow.

In doing research for The Power to Produce Wonders: The Value of Family in Philanthropy, I came across reflections from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Almost 200 years ago, he commented on the motivations of America’s democratic government:

The principles of the republics of antiquity was to sacrifice private interests to the general good. In that sense one could say that they were virtuous. The principle of this one seems to be to make private interests harmonize with the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent selfishness seems to be the pivot on which the whole machine turns. These people do not trouble themselves to find whether public virtue is good, but they do claim to prove that it is useful. If this latter point is true, as I think it is in part, this society can pass as enlightened if not virtuous. But up to what extent can the two principles of individual well-being and the general good in fact be merged? How far can a conscience, which one might say was based on reflection and calculation, master those political passions which are not yet born, but which certainly will be born? This is something only the future will show.

I may wonder where the “refined” and “intelligent” federal discourse has gone to (I believe I did spot the “selfishness”). But de Tocqueville was wise enough to notice that the new democracy did not depend entirely on its government for its social wellbeing. He went on to describe the individual or personal commitment to community and what we might today call the work of the nonprofit or voluntary sector:

Democracy does not give people the most skillful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create; namely an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders. These are the true advantages of democracy.

I am delighted to say that family philanthropy, thankfully, seems to be more interested in energy and wonders than taking its cues from government when it comes to the ability to work across family, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, gender, geographic, religious, and interest lines. But it still is a cautionary tale. The capacity for collective action does not thrive (nor, likely, even exist) without specific ongoing attention paid to its value and practice.

John Nason, university president, foundation trustee and author of two seminal books on foundation trusteeship, listed the “capacity for teamwork, for arriving at and accepting group decisions” as one of his ten required qualities of foundation trustees. He went on to write:

Irresolvable differences, the tactics of confrontation, ad hominem arguments, and lack of respect for one’s fellow trustees are destructive of intelligent group decisions. These qualities demonstrate the danger of diversity carried to an extreme. Collegiality in the form of uniform outlook is stultifying; collegiality as a way of disagreeing, yet working harmoniously together is essential. (Foundation Trusteeship: Service in the Public Interest)

It is not surprising that Paul Ylvisaker, also an educator, trustee, and philanthropic speaker/writer, would reflect Nason’s concern. As president of Swarthmore, Nason gave the newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. his first teaching job. Ylvisaker wrote that, in moving from the tradition of charity to the tradition of organized philanthropy, one of the essential elements is the “search for consensus in approach and resolution. Consensus is an institutional imperative in our times, simply to minimize the friction generated by institutions moving through a crowding social and political environment.” (Conscience and Community: The Legacy of Paul Ylvisaker)

The “Power to Produce Wonders” research also helped me understand how much passion plays a role in family giving. Passion was credited for inspiring giving, motivating the giver to give more and over a longer period of time, and to encourage others by advocating for causes, communities and institutions. Passion was also credited for raising the stakes, adding a measure of volatility to decision making, and, therefore, making reasoned discourse and collective action occasionally more difficult.

So how do passion and consensus merge in the practice of family philanthropy? How do we keep the “refined” and “intelligent” in our discourse? Can we continue to advocate and act with the civility we, our partners in this work, and our public trust deserve?

I think some of the answers to those questions can be found (or, at least, inspired) in a set of eleven commandments for grantmakers Paul Ylvisaker offered in his extraordinary essay “The Spirit of Philanthropy and the Soul of Those Who Manage It.” It’s my favorite essay on philanthropy and I turn to it often. So, I would like to take the first two commandments, reverse the order, and end my homage to just a few of my favorite quotes by sharing them with you:

Guard the soul of your own organization, even from your own pretensions. Those of you lucky enough to be part of an institution that has a soul know what a precious environment it is. It’s a secure environment within which distinctive personalities complement rather than compete with each other; it’s an open environment in which hierarchy is respected but not imposed, and where posturing and game-playing are unnecessary; it’s an institution in which values are explicitly and easily discussed, and there is a consistency between values stated and values played out; it’s an organization [that] demonstrates its humanity equally in its responsiveness to the needs and sensibilities of its external constituencies and in the care with which it nourishes and grows its own personnel.

Guard your own humanity. The first ethical commandment …is to take care of yourself. This is not acting for number one; it means taking care of what you are or should be, so that you can radiate that out to others. If you lose your own soul – whether to arrogance, insensitivity, insecurity or the shield of impersonality – you diminish the spirit of philanthropy. The goal to aspire to is that you will be a distinguished human being who gives to the foundation as much an identity as you derive from it, and far more than the money you give or negotiate away. In a very real sense, you are philanthropy.

Civility and consensus do not rely on homogeneity nor need they be, as Nason cautioned, stultifying. In an era when even working together cordially feels like an impossible wonder, I believe the power to produce the true wonders that de Tocqueville noticed might be in the hands of those in the nonprofit sector and especially in family philanthropy. After all, it is in our families that we first learn to get along, get things done, all with respect and love.

Share your passions and recognize that others may be equally passionate about their own causes and beliefs. Advocate with abandon and recognize that, with grace, you are more likely to inspire others to your cause. Muster all the resources you are blessed to have at your disposal but recognize that, with humility, you can learn from and create with others. In the true spirit of leadership, grab the bullhorn but recognize that we are all rowing this boat together.

With faith and hope in civility and wonders,


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A "best of" collection of NCFP Founder Virginia Esposito's writing on governance, family dynamics, embracing the next generation, the role of the donor, and more.

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