Philanthropy Professionals as Agents of Change

One of my mentors and a leading thinker in all things philanthropy, Jim Lord, introduced me some time ago to the concept of the development professional as change agent. This immediately resonated with me. Many, myself included, have come to see that our very language (habitual and accepted without much scrutiny) of “fundraising” as narrow and mechanical. If our words have the power to open us to new worlds, then the language of change agentry is more than a simple freshening; it’s a reflection of a new mindset and the adoption of new behavior.

The concept of change agentry feels so much more descriptive of the highest and best nature of the work, even if viewed by some as aspirational. I think of the change we seek to bring about as midwifing a preferred future that is trying to emerge.1 Stay with this metaphor a moment longer. This suggests that the future is not solely of your making, but you have a significant role in guiding it safely into a new space. Further, it recognizes there is life and energy around that unbirthed future before your arrival in your professional capacity.

The transformative role of the development professional (change agent/midwife of ideas and dreams) is to honor and serve the co-creators of this new life; to provide skillful attention to the delicate—joyful, but sometimes painful—act of bringing the new idea to fruition. This is no passive role. It requires rapt attention and a level of selfless service, providing assurance and comfort during the process, and immediately protecting and swaddling the new idea once brought into the world. In the best of situations, the generative exchange between donor and professional co-creates an even more consequential imagined impact than either could achieve alone. This is true transformation—from a living state of existing within one person (the donor) to a new state of public presence, where the support of caregivers can assure the idea and the co-creators are nourished, warm, and continuously strengthened until such time as more internal viability has developed.

“In the best of situations, the generative exchange between donor and professional co-creates an even more consequential imagined impact than either could achieve alone.”

A weird concept and metaphor you say? Perhaps. Yet this metaphor belies many of my long-held beliefs about a more sophisticated, more human, more organic approach to the philanthropic exchange.

In this spirit, I invite your consideration of these points:

1.Your language reflects your mindset and the culture in which you’re operating.

A cornerstone concept in appreciative inquiry is that “words create worlds.” The academic underpinning of the concept is social constructionism, which in its simplest form suggests that we create the world by the language we use to describe it and we experience the world in line with the images we hold about it. Few people have the experience of developing their philanthropy program from scratch. Instead, they inherit an existing program and/or become engaged (as a professional or a volunteer) in an existing program with its own values, culture, processes, metrics…and language.

I invite you to simply and quietly observe your own program for a couple days. Look and listen for the signals and markers of what appears to be valued by you and your colleagues, as reflected in that to which the team and its scorekeepers pay closest attention.

  • What language is used to describe partners (prospects, targets, and funding sources…or friends, benefactors, and leaders) and processes (pipeline management, overcoming resistance, the ask…or deepening engagement, amplifying curiosity and energy, and inviting partnership)?
  • What would that language convey to your closest and most valued donors?
  • Would those donors use similar language and/or feel good about knowing you use that language?
  • What does your team’s language suggest is your shared mindset and assumptions?
  • Given that shared mindset and assumptions, how are your behavior patterns influenced and shaped?
  • Finally, to what extent are the results you’re getting directly connected to your shared mindset, values, and language?
  • Have we asked and answered these questions in an open team reflection?

2. Reflection should augment, if not balance, training and practice.

Development professionals come to the work from many paths, some with academic study and preparation, others with relevant and allied work experience. Many learn in some form of the apprentice model; fewer with strong mentors. What can happen along the way is dutiful attention to building up the skills of the effective practitioner. Unintentionally, continuous and narrow attention to skill-building alone an devolve into a “me-centric” unconscious orientation. Further, the practitioner can be unconsciously drawn into an almost myopic attention to the tools, the methods, the best practice. While none of this is bad in the proper context, it brings its own limitations and, again unintentionally, can lead to burnout. That’s why I’ve come to believe that it is essential for every philanthropy professional to invest the time for deeper reflection on beingrather than devoting all one’s attention to doing. Some questions to start your reflection might be:

  • Why am I involved in philanthropy in the first place?
  • What are my deepest beliefs about who I am here to serve?
  • What do I value most about myself that fuels the greatest contribution I can make to bringing someone else’s dream to reality?
  • Am I truly conscious of my language and what it conveys about my deepest beliefs and assumptions about the work, the donor, and philanthropy?

3. Development work is strategic relationship inquiry with appreciative intent.

The most successful development professionals I’ve seen are those who have the courage and the confidence to hold their (and their organization’s) agenda loosely; to open themselves at several levels. The U drawing below illustrates this point.2 If language indeed shapes the world in which we operate, then the language of our relationships with donors should be governed by appreciative intent. Our actions should then manifest in ways that demonstrates our own opening—of our minds, our hearts, and our will.

This is counter-intuitive for many. Consider, however, that holding your own agenda loosely (the left side “letting go” leg of the U) is a conscious choice and a necessary path to reach the real source of transforming your approach to your work. The bottom of the U represents not only your own personal transformation, but it also reflects that portal to reciprocal trust, and the fullest expression of appreciative intent. The strongest relationships come through this portal…as do, often, the biggest transformative ideas. The right side of the U is the exciting path of working with the donor to imagine together bold new possibilities, with philanthropic investment as the catalyst and the fuel. Traveling this right side of the U (Scharmer calls it the “letting come” side) with the donor is a beautiful journey of nourishing the donor’s idea into something of even greater significance—real consequence—for society. Relationships born of walking this path together are often forged for a lifetime. They not only signal a donor’s truest capacity for investment, they signal an inspired imagination and the kind of generative hope and vision that cascades to many other people.

So, why doesn’t everybody practice philanthropy this way? First, I believe traversing this path requires courage and confidence for development professionals and leaders engaged in the pursuit of gift investments. Tension arises when the organizational cultural context seems to expect (or demand) rapid movement toward big gifts regardless of the established trust equity and meaningful engagement. This default posture often brings with it an unspoken belief in a linear progression from point A (where you are in relationship today) to point B (transformational investment). In so doing, one completely skirts the “opening;” that expression of appreciative intent that demonstrates your personal and professional authenticity and your service orientation. It also skirts the deeper formation of the true partnership with the donor that can add depth, dimension, and consequence to the gift.

4. The work to incubate an organizational culture of philanthropy requiresthe development professional to be a change agent.

The very dimensions of a truly appreciative organizational culture lead to a natural process of appreciative engagement, which is the foundation of a rich culture of philanthropy. Those dimensions are:

  • Illuminate purpose and explore fulfillment
  • Inquire about life-giving forces
  • Nourish imagination about possibilities

In subsequent issues, I’ll offer more reflection on fostering an appreciative culture. For now, let’s consider that the mindset and behavioral approach to working with donors is parallel to the ways in which the development change agent catalyzes an appreciate organizational and philanthropy culture.


Meaningful Engagement
of a Donor/Partner

Incubating an Appreciative Organizational Culture

Fostering an Authentic Culture of Philanthropy

Illuminate purpose and explore fulfillment

  • Explore to discover her interpretation of her “source”
  • Listen for her stories of values, aspirations
  • Spot and fan desire for innovation & collaboration for impact
  • Start with why (Sinek). Encourage reflection equal to production.
  • Recognize: the answer to “why” (beyond canned mission language) fuels our shared mental model (mindset); which governs language patterns, systems, processes, rules, and protocols; which gives shape to our patterns of behavior; which gets reflected in daily activity.
  • Work “inside” to understand intent and purpose; seek to uncover the stories where our intention is clearest. Likewise, work “outside” to understand the personal donor joy of rising to meet a fulfilling promise.
  • Recognize, value, and release the influence of philanthropy in both directions. A union of reciprocal value.

Inquire about life-giving forces

  • Guide her to voice ever-deeper inner knowing about what is manifest in her greatest joys and triumphs; when she feels most vital and energized.
  • Together, see if you can see a pattern of attention across time, which yields a pattern of impact
  • Invite broad curiosity about our organization when we are at are best, most vital, most impactful. What can we learn from those instances?
  • Inquire about the themes and cascading transfer of learnings
  • Explore with key partners together (donors, philanthropy staff, administrators, program people, alumni, board, etc.) stories of conscious awareness of organizational values in action, supported by philanthropy.
  • Make meaning from the common ground themes among the stories

Nourish imagination about possibilities

  • Together, your inquiry is a path to co-creation
  • Adopt the lens of abundance
  • Help her see the difference she can make because of who she is, not because of the money invested
  • Lift the best of what is: “Isn’t it amazing…?” and the power of possibility thinking: “Imagine if…”
  • Understand & support her energy tied to transformative commitments
  • What could be possible for us and our impact if the life-giving forces of us at our best were amplified and became the norm?
  • What is the best possible outcome we could imagine together?
  • Leverage the identified themes as a way of igniting discussion of shared images of a preferred future.
  • Invite participation in a process of shared imagination, resulting in a greater ability to articulate bold possibilities that evoke ownership and transformative action.

While the table above is an over-simplified expression of parallel processes, its value is in illustrating the process of seeing the work with new eyes. With meaningful engagement as the path toward greater impact, development professionals and donors must walk this path together. First, however, development professionals have some letting go/getting clear work to do—some reframing of your own inner work to be able to engage others in the most authentic ways possible. In so doing, you’ll be working in service of those who seek great consequence for society. A noble profession indeed.


1I wrote an article with this title back in 2011 called I Am Midwife to a Future Trying to Emerge
2Adapted from Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.