Learn From Others

I have many parts to my life.  Grief is a part, but not the whole…and I wanted to share this with you.

In a recently published book by Colburn Wilbur (the former CEO of the Packard Foundation) and Fred Setterberg, titled Giving with Confidence: A Guide to Savvy Philanthropy — I am thrilled to be included in chapter 5.

The Never-Ending Education of a Donor

Principle #5:  Learn from Others

“When I started working with my family’s philanthropy,” recalled Radha Stern, “I knew that I had a lot to learn. The question was where to start. I sent away for a booklet outlining philanthropy basics, but it turned out to be a pitch from a bank looking for customers. I called a technical assistance organization for nonprofits and said, ‘I’m trying to figure out how to give away money.  Can you help me?’  I later learned that the staff had a twenty dollar bet riding as to whether I was kook. Finally, a friend told me, ‘You have to meet my cousin Eddie.’  I thought, ‘The last thing I need is to meet somebody’s cousin Eddie.’ ”

But cousin Eddie turned out to be Ed Nathan, one of the nation’s most innovative grantmakers who served as the executive director of the Zellerbach Family Foundation for more than 30 years.

“He opened doors for me,” said Radha. “Ed saw that I was a serious student, and that I wanted to learn as much as I could.  He introduced me to Adele Corvin, Bruce Sievers, Claude Rosenberg – all these leaders in Bay Area philanthropy. I needed to fund over a million dollars in five counties within a few months with my family’s charitable lead trusts. But we didn’t even have guidelines. Thankfully, I found an openness among all of these people to somebody young and hungry to do good in the world. If I had any question, no matter how small, I’d ask.”

Sometimes the questions revolved around the minutia of foundation philanthropy.  “Like who pays for lunch?” remembered Radha.  “I had worked for years in the grocery industry, and there you buy lunch one week, your colleague buys next.  So what about philanthropy?  ‘Radha,’ Ed told me, ‘the funder always buys.’”

More often, counsel involved more complex matters of planning, research, collaborating with other funders and leveraging smaller gifts into greater impact.  As important, Radha’s tutors spoke frankly about the emotional life of giving.

“One of the best things anybody told me was that your gut is right most of the time. Over the years, that turned out to be true. But it was very helpful to hear those words spoken early on by somebody I respected.  I got confirmation that I was on the right track.”

Today Radha stands out as a savvy, committed donor – someone whose counsel others new to giving now routinely seek.  Yet even with her own philanthropic practice firmly established, she still maintains relationships with the people who originally served as her mentors.

“It’s not just the information at the beginning of your efforts that’s crucial,” she emphasized.  “What’s equally important is the relationships you build that continue to nurture and educate you. Networks like to be used.  I treasure the people who’ve helped me over the years, and I hope they feel treasured.”

Radha speaks wisely. Over the decades, I’ve received many calls at the Packard Foundation from people new to philanthropy, and the ones that I feel best about invariably include a moment when the caller confesses that she’s worried about not doing a good job.  I reply that I’d be worried if she wasn’t worried – and then something between us usually clicks. I know that I am speaking with an eager learner who can put our mutual time to good use.  And while it’s true that most experienced donors enjoy helping others to master their craft, I am sorry to say that there remains a reluctance among people new to the field to seek out guidance and counsel.

“Donors often fail to think of themselves as investors,” explained Radha.  “They don’t delve into the subject in the way they might with a business venture. When I started out, I attended every course and training I could find about how the nonprofit sector works.  I took classes in the basics of management and governance. I got insight into the voluntary sector and learned how it differs from the business world. I studied fundraising, grant writing, and fiscal planning from the agency perspective. For a long time, I’d go on thirty site visits each year. That just made sense to me because when I was working in the food business, I used to visit ten to fifteen groceries each day. ‘You have the best job in the world,’ people would tell me. ‘Giving away money.  It’s so easy.’  Well, it’s not.  I want to make investments in things that will grow. I also love learning something new, and the entire project of immersing myself in philanthropy has made me feel like a kid in candy store.”

To purchase the book if you wish:

Giving With Confidence: A Guide to Savvy Philanthropy (Heyday Books)

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