#137 How a Seasoned Philanthropist Can Help You Excel in Your Giving Strategy with David Secord Founder and Principal of Barnacle StrategiesJul 17, 2023
A seasoned philanthropist David Secord offers tips on how to be the best funder you can be, and make the most of your donations right away. David shares his experiences as founder and principal of Barnacle Strategies, a consultancy that works with foundations, Indigenous and environmental NGOs, and academic institutions.
- How David got into philanthropy.
- What it's like funding in two different countries.
- Nonprofits that David has had long-lasting relationships with.
- Advice for people who are starting out in their funder journey.
- Tough times as a funder and how to navigate your way through it.
- The joy of philanthropic work.
David Secord Bio:
After 20 years in foundation and university leadership jobs, I established Barnacle Strategies as my independent consulting and volunteering platform. From a home base on an island in BC, I work with partners in Canada, the United States, and sometimes farther afield. I enjoy variety and so at a given time consulting clients might include foundations and funder affinity groups, partnership-oriented academic and research institutions, Indigenous people's organizations, and big or small NGOs. Projects and advising tend toward the creative and relevant, and often integrate environmental, socioeconomic, and biocultural strategies - especially place-based ones. I also help organizations recruit outstanding talent by managing executive searches and keep fresh by serving on several volunteer boards.
- Arctic Funders Collaborative - https://www.arcticfunders.com/
- Spruce Root LLC - https://www.spruceroot.org/
- Sustainable Southeast Partnership - http://sustainablesoutheast.net/
- MakeWay (Tides Canada) - https://makeway.org/
- Here is a good article from 2012 explaining the politics I referenced and the political attacks on the Canadian charitable sector, including Tides Canada: https://www.vancouverobserver.com/politics/commentary/stephen-colbert-truthiness-and-harper-governments-attack-canadas-charities
- Here is a good short piece illuminating what Mr. Secord said in his interview about intermediary organizations: https://www.peakinsightjournal.org/an-introduction-to-intermediaries/
- Wilburforce http://www.wilburforce.org/
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Would you like to talk with Sybil directly?
I'm really happy to rerun this amazing interview. I talked to my good friend David Secord, who is such a great example of an intermediary who can help. If you're a donor, this will help you give your money away effectively. I'm trying to talk to You about how important it is to hire experts to help. Help you because giving money away is a profession and something you have to learn, and there are a lot of folks out there that can help.
David does a lot of different kinds of work. He'll help with the analysis. He'll also really do the due diligence to help you with your dockets, your regular dockets when you give money away, and he has served as a program officer too. So, program officers are also a form of intermediary. There are other consultants like me and David or there are folks you can hire as staff to help you.
So, I hope you enjoy this rerun of the interview I did with David. He's so funny, too. Anytime I talk with him, I laugh a lot. So have a great time.
I'm so glad for our listeners out there. Just so they know, we're having our little happy hour over Zoom because, you know, usually we get to see each other at these are these funder conferences where we get to talk and exchange notes and everything, but like this year, we've all had to just do things by Zoom. So, cheers, Dave.
Sure, Sybil. It's great to see you. And I guess I am grateful that we have a history of knowing each other and hanging out in person so that we can sustain real relationships over Zoom when we have to. But I can't wait for the day when we can go back and hang out with our colleagues and our grantees in real places with real people again.
So, David, can you talk to me a little about your life history, your story, and your inspiration for philanthropy? You know, just a small, subtle question like that, and then we'll get into some tips and tricks that you've had over the years because you're such a great funder And I'd love to hear from you and learn from you. But talk to me a little about your life story a little bit there first.
I was born and raised in Seattle, and I'm descended from Alaskans on my dad's side and Canadians on my mom's side. And I never would have predicted it. But ironically, my favorite places to be a funder now are Alaska and Canada, so that family history has somehow merged with my professional work. And it's kind of cool. And I think it's kind of given me a little bit of credibility in working with certain kinds of communities that are different from where I live and remote from where I live.
I got into philanthropy through the back door, like lots of people do. I used to be a university professor at the University of Washington. I was most recently the director of a big, unwieldy interdisciplinary environmental studies program at the university. Up until about 14 years ago now.
I always wondered what it would be like to work somewhere else besides the university because I interacted with all sorts of people who weren't academics but who I thought were smart and cool and doing intelligent, important things in the world. And my big opportunity to escape from the Ivory Tower came when I was offered a job at the Wilberforce Foundation in Seattle.
The long story of how that happened, but I jumped at the chance to go and figure out how to give away someone's money wisely to causes in conservation that I believed in and in places that even then, Alaska and Western Canada, I thought were cool.
And so, I have learned so much every day working in philanthropy—at least as much as I ever did. Teaching and learning in universities every day, and it's been an honor and a delight through frustrations and all sorts of other things. But it's been just a great journey.
Well, and now you're in Canada, correct? And you moved up to Canada a little while ago. And you're a Canadian citizen, and you also work at Tides Canada, or you did, and now you're a consultant, right?
Yeah, if it weren't for philanthropy, I wouldn't have had the chance to immigrate to Canada. I don't think I'll become a dual citizen. It was my first job in philanthropy at Wilberforce that got me to work deeply, working deeply in Canada in addition to Alaska, and that led to a job offer to come and work in senior management at the Canadian Foundation.
And so that's what led my family so I went down the long, drawn-out, fascinating process, I should say, of becoming Canadian, and I'm still an American citizen too. So as a consultant, now I get to work seamlessly in both countries and travel back and forth when it's not a pandemic, and that has been a huge advantage for funders and grantees. We really can learn from each other by working across borders and comparing what happens in different countries, and that has been one of the great bundles of lessons for me and something I would recommend to other funders pursue, don't just look at how you do it in your narrow community but look at how other people do it and what you can learn from them. What can you share with them?
Yeah, let's talk about that. You're funding two different countries. I mean, that's interesting to me because every country has different laws, different standards, and different issues, both from the logistical side, you know, in terms of giving to grantees and giving funding to grantees, and then also just in terms of the small “p” politics, in terms of how people interact with advocacy or with specific issues they care about. How do you make sure that you're a sensitive funder and like the different approaches people take? I talk a little, maybe, about Canada and then about the US, like, how are we different? How are we similar to all that kind of stuff would be helpful.
Helpful in two different countries. Part of the fun and part of the challenge.
So, I try to read a lot of books, news sources, social media, blogs, and online. I often have to pinch myself and remind myself, OK, is this a US source or is this a Canadian source? Is there an election going on in this state, in this province, or this territory? Did that policy breakthrough that just happened happen in the place I'm thinking about this minute or in the place I was thinking about 5 minutes ago, or in the call I was just on now with someone in Anchorage? But then in a minute, I'm on a call with someone in Toronto.
So it keeps my brain nimble because I have to constantly think about where I'm at. And it's not just the country differences that are fundamental; it's where you are within a country. We all know that Washington is different from Oregon, is different from Alaska, is different from New Jersey, and the same is true inside Canada. You can't generalize about Canada, even though Americans tend to, because the way it works in British Columbia is not how it works in Ontario, how it works in the Yukon, or how it works in Newfoundland.
And so, there's just another layer of subtlety and nuance to keep track of, but that, honestly, is what keeps it fun. I think there are ways to do this kind of work. Intensively in a particular place, and there are ways to do it extensively by looking across places, and every funder needs to find its sweet spot between depth and breadth. And sometimes that involves the borders of countries, states, or provinces that you need to keep track of. If you're going to be effective.
You had so many years of funding as a funder. Can you talk to me about some of your favorite grants? Some of your favorite experiences that you've had in your years of doing this, both with Wilberforce and with Tides Canada, and now as a consultant working for families.
I think what's been most rewarding for me over the years has been long-term relationships with places, with organizations, and with individuals, so if I think back at some of my favorite grantees, they are sometimes people and organizations that I started funding 14 years ago when I was at Wilberforce, and then when I moved to a job in Canada and was mainly working in Canada, even if those grantees were in the States, I kind of still kept track of them. I kind of still talked to colleagues.
So, what's the gossip with so and so, and how's that organization? Working or whatever happened with that policy, and now that I'm independent, I have clients who are foundations in both countries, and I have a grants portfolio once again in Alaska. I have had the opportunity to introduce some foundation board members in Los Angeles and other places to some cool grantees in Alaska.
And some of those are grantees that I had way back when I was at Wilberforce in 2007. And sometimes they have the same staff, sometimes they don't. Sometimes organizations have gotten stronger; sometimes they haven't. And having that depth of history in places makes me realize and be able to share with my clients, who are foundations, how long-term change can be supported by philanthropy. In some of these places, the same problem is present now as it was back then, but in other ways, the breakthroughs have been slow and steady and kind of amazing. The cultural change that happens, the political and policy change, and how each little philanthropic grant, as the late Ted Smith used to say, is a nudge.
As a funder, you can't pretend that you're changing the world, but you also can't aspire to have each investment you're making in dollars. Each conversation you're having with a community should be a little, tiny nudge in some sort of positive direction. And over time, those things add up and can be associated with better outcomes. And that is so cool to have just the length of history working for different funders, compared with different places. But the depth of relationships has almost become like the depth of relationships in the family.
I love that, David. And can you talk a little bit about maybe one or two examples of some grantees or nonprofits in Alaska that you just referenced that you have a long-standing relationship with and what the actual issues were that you have been partnering with them on for so many years?
I mean, there are some things that I know. And I'm asking this as a leading question because I know some really cool stuff.
One of the trends I've noticed over the years is that environmental funders and conservation grantees have gotten way savvier at thinking about people, communities, the economy, indigenous culture, and how all that relates to biodiversity. When I started in this field. Environmental and conservation funders and most of their grantees put the environment and everything around it in a box. With somebody else's problem.
And slowly over time, individuals and organizations have learned that complex issues are intersectional. To use a buzzword and holistic. To use another buzzword, there are ways to incorporate those realities. Philanthropic strategies become a lot more effective.
So, for example, back in 2007, 2008, and 2009, I was funding environmental groups to do pretty traditional advocacy to defend public lands from industrial threats and to try to get new protected areas into policy, and people were just beginning then in a serious way, learning a lot from some things that happened in British Columbia.
Here in Canada, engage in conversations with communities with resource extraction and native communities, and the green groups gradually realize they don't just need to advocate with other people, talk down to other people, or “reach out to other people”. They just needed to listen and learn where other people are coming from and how to build broader coalitions that could get integrated goals across the finish line—integrated goals that might combine cultural revitalization, economic livelihoods in communities, and biodiversity conservation on public land.
No one of those things is necessarily going to move on its own, but if they're hooked up to each other in smart ways, which all hinge on relationships, then they can move together. And so, that is really hard stuff. But I think that's the direction that philanthropy is heading.
So, lots of my grantees in Alaska that we were just doing straight-up advocacy with 12/15 years ago are now in deep relationships with native organizations and are oftentimes intentionally taking a back seat on issues where native organizations ought to be in the front seat for all sorts of good reasons.
And the green groups are playing a supportive role. They're able to talk honestly with their funders about the fact that they aren't leading on everything and that they're playing a supportive role, and the funders are getting smart about directly funding native organizations. Even from an environmental portfolio, that was pretty rare 15 years ago. Now it's increasingly common, and that's opened the door to new kinds of collaborations among funders. Because I don't just hang around with environmental funders. Now, I hang around with funders who identify as social justice funders or indigenous peoples funders, or even rural economic development funders.
So, it's been a process over the years of silo-busting, and it's been a shared learning journey by grantees, communities, and funders. All working together in particular places where the reality of the place dictates that putting things in silos or buckets is dumb.
That's great. Putting things in silos and buckets is dumb. That is the main thing, David.
So do you have an example, like, is there a particular time when you're talking about this? This is a really important transition and transformation. Can you give me an example of a community that's doing this well?
Sitka, Alaska, is kind of a classic example. Sitka is a town of 8 or 9000 people, so that makes it one of the bigger cities in Southeast Alaska, and it was one of two towns that for decades had industrial-scale pulp mills that were extracting old-growth trees off of the largest National Forest in the US, the Tongas. And turning those trees into toilet paper. Under 50-year contracts that the US Forest Service signed in the 1950s, even before statehood in Alaska.
And for reasons that had to do with economics and litigation. Those pulp mills closed down before the end of those 50-year contracts, and Sitka is a town that worked hard to deal with the Apparent catastrophe of losing its largest employer to move out of the conflict between environmentalists and resource extraction and into a diversified and more harmonious economy, and therefore a more harmonious community.
And it was environmental groups, native groups, and people who thought differently about economic development, working individually and together, made that transition happen successfully in Sitka, so some of the things that funders Funded were dialogues such as the Tongas Futures Roundtable, a multi-party discussion group that went on for three years and met in every community in Southeast Alaska. We had everybody at the table: tribes, the federal government, state governments, small-town mayors, environmentalists across an ideological spectrum, timber people, fishing people You name it, the funders we're all at this table, and it did not fall. And I was one of those funders who was at that table.
And so, I have memories of being in every little community in Southeast Alaska, stuck in the dead of winter, interacting with all sorts of strange and wonderful people who were not ideologically in lockstep with one another. And a lot of people would look back and say that the whole thing was a failure because it did not produce a really clear legislative policy outcome. But I'm here to tell you that as a result of those dialogues between 2006 and 2010, things are happening today because relationships were built, and they have evolved and borne fruit out of that foundation of trust.
So, one of the things that exist today in that region that funders can fund that didn't exist back then is Native-led Community Development Financial Institution CDF I called Spruce Root LLC, which is also A501C3, a potential grantee for foundations in the US, and they spawn something whose roots can go straight back to the round table in 2007, called the Sustainable SE Partnership. And every small business, every small town, every regional environmental group, and many native nonprofits and tribes are all part of the Sustainable SE partnership at Spruce or a native LED organization.
That is the kind of thing that is producing super tangible, practical outcomes now, like better land use planning, better small business creation, and the transition from old-growth logging to a more sustainable economy. Those were the big generational challenges 15 years ago, and now, because of these shared tables instead of siloed tables, People are coming up with solutions together, and philanthropy is one of the Contributors to that.
And David, I love that you're talking about 15 years. And yes, maybe one of the benchmarks didn't get met where some significant policy didn't happen within a certain timeline, but there were these unexpected benefits or maybe expected benefits, but it took so many years to make that happen.
So, you know, circling back to what you were saying before, which is patience and commitment to the particular area that you're focused on. Along those lines, David, since you've worked with lots of different funders and donors, how do you feel that the funders, donors, and philanthropists that you work with have responded to the longer time frame? Do you feel that people are getting it and sort of investing in it over that longer time frame? Or have you had to experience fatigue both on your part and with the folks you work with, how do you cope with the fatigue and still stay committed and interested? But maybe I don't know shift your funding a little bit, but don't always completely leave. I mean, what are some strategies you have to sort of stay engaged and interested? Over a 15-year time horizon, I see you laughing a little bit there.
Well, I'm partly laughing because, you know, some funders are good at being patient and staying the course for a long period. And they thrive on the depth of relationships, and they're happy with incremental progress—two steps forward, one step back—because that's how it works.
Other funders have always been and are still into shiny objects. They flip from one thing to another. Sometimes their funding is not very strategic. You can flip from one thing to another. Not do much damage, but if you're trying, to build a deep long-term theory of change, you flip to another thing that can send grantees off a fiscal cliff and be a problem, potentially leaving a damaging legacy that is worse than not having been there in the first place.
And so, I think this is where funders can be responsible by teaming up a little bit and learning from one another, if a funder knows themselves well enough to know that they might not be able to stay the course for a long time, they work with the long-term committed funders to find new short-term funders to backfill themselves when they leave. So that an entire region has a stable but ever-changing cadre of funders who can share knowledge, collectively understand the region, and collectively hold relationships with the people of the region.
So, I think that's kind of the best-case scenario. I don't think you're ever going to change funders’ level of patience because some of them are just going to be impatient, so they just have to know as they come and go how to do it responsibly. This is especially important in remote, rural, and indigenous communities that might not have a lot of experience dealing with large-scale or big-city philanthropy Conversely, those funders from a place like San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, or New York might not have any clue of what realities are on the ground in rural, remote, and indigenous places.
And so taking a bit of time to build trust sometimes leads to long-term relationships. Programs, but if it At least people can be aware enough that they can, you know, hand some of the budgetary reins to a colleague before they just vanish and go fund something else.
Well, and that's something else, David; that's because you said so many things I want to unpack there. But one thing that's hitting me is that in my lessons, I focus on really suggesting that if you're just starting as a funder and have money to give away, the first thing you should do is focus on who you are and your community and start giving grants in places where you're familiar so that this problem doesn't happen, which you just illustrated, which is that you go into some place you think you might want to care about it. You think it should be cared about, but you don't know much about the cool thing is, David, that there is this other way, which is if you've identified what you're interested in but you're realizing Oh, it's not actually in a place that I know a lot about. Maybe some people do know something about it.
So that's a reason to sort of bring in Someone Like You, David, who, let's say, is interested in Alaska. You already know a lot of the players. People in rural communities, the issues you've been there for so many years.
So, I guess that's just something that you were talking about, and I want to emphasize that there's space for people to come in and help as intermediaries, especially if you're not already familiar with the locations.
Well, let me pick up on the word intermediary civil because I think it's an important word and there are a lot of ways in which it can be used and interpreted positively. A direct relationship between a funder and a donor is a donor or a foundation board member going to a place themselves and spending time digging into understanding the land, the people, and what makes it tick. That's the gold standard.
There are at least three ways that the idea of an intermediary can be taken advantage of by a funder who doesn't necessarily have the time to go and spend a lot of time herself in the grounding communities. One is to hire staff and empower those staff to have the time and resources to travel and be present in places. Gather intelligence-filled relationships and bring those insights back to the board.
I was lucky when I worked at the Wilberforce Foundation that we were relatively staffed per grant dollar and had a generous travel budget, so I could spend a lot of time on the ground in communities in both Canada and Alaska working hard to learn where it was going on, build relationships, and bring that information back to the board.
Another way of being an intermediary is, as you said, being a funder who hires consultants in a region or who knows a region and has relationships that can ramp up learning and relationship building. Trust building.
And then the third is to work with intermediary organizations in a region. So, there is a very specific category of nonprofits, the equivalent in Canada, the US, or around the world, that is called intermediaries and can be funded by a funder, like a private foundation fund an intermediary who will in turn around and fund local and regional grantees, or manage a bunch of bodies of work based on their presence in a region and their knowledge of that region and every part of the world. Having one or more intermediaries that are eligible charitable grantee intermediaries is a fabulous tool for funders from one place who want to be effective in another place to build bridges in really practical ways through their granting and as a result. Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn.
Learning is the key, huh?
And as an example of your third piece, the institutional intermediary. You worked at Tides Canada, and did Tides Canada sort of serve as that institutional intermediary? As an example, if someone understands what that is, they sort of serve as that on occasion. I know that they had done a lot of things.
Did a lot of things, but yeah, I would say yes, Tides Canada Foundation, which has been renamed. Make way for the foundation. Since I worked there. Played the role of an intermediary in Canada. That was something I had to figure out when I moved from the Wilberforce Foundation, which is a private foundation with a single donor, to Canada and went to work at Tides Canada now.
The role we played as an intermediary was that we worked with funders around the world who were interested in certain regions or issues in Canada and helped them pool their dollars and pool their ideas to be effective in regions far from where they live.
So, I had a team of staff there who were based in six cities across Canada, we have specialized regional knowledge, issue knowledge, cultural knowledge, and relationships in those regions, and we work with funders, mainly from outside of Canada, to help them be effective in iconic Environmental landscapes. Iconic cultural landscapes such as the Great Bear Rainforest on the BC coast, the Canadian Arctic, the Great Lakes, and the Boreal Forest in northern Manitoba.
So, what we offered them was financial mechanisms for grant-making mechanisms to maintain relationships with other funders interested in the same place and mechanisms to do the regranting of dollars with a program officer who was on the ground in the region every day. So that's a good example of what an intermediary can offer a funder from far away.
I love this, David. I mean, you're such a great person to be talking to because you and I’ve realized while we're talking that we've been friends for so long, through all your different machinations of jobs that I'm realizing. Oh my God. This is so cool. You were working for a private Family Foundation. Then you worked for a broader intermediary institution that was a funder, and now you're an independent consultant.
But I want to get into something a little bit tougher. But let's talk about some of the tough times that we've had, and I'm saying we because I've had tough times too as a funder where occasionally we usually work a little bit in the quiet space, right? We're helping people, and it's this wonderful place where we can help people and think positively about everything, and it's all good.
Occasionally, a spotlight gets put on funders by politicians for people who are worried about what we're doing, and it's a stressful time when spotlights get put on us. And I know you experienced that at one point, and it was Tides Canada, which is now making way, and I know there are a lot of sensitive pieces of that. But I would love to hear some stories, like, how did you? What happened there? Give us some context.
And then, what are some of the words of wisdom or thoughts that you might have? Other folks may get the spotlight put on them so that people don't stop doing philanthropy or get scared away from it because of those stressful potential times.
Thanks for the hard question, Sybil. So those of us who work in philanthropy or choose to put our money into complex issues are bound to have an enemy here and no work involves everything being sugar-coated and happy all the time. There will be people who don't like what you're trying to do, and as a funder, it's usually pretty easy to let them down. Be quiet and below the radar, and with justice, calmly give money to people who themselves might be in the spotlight because they're in a politically exposed position. Sometimes the politics trickles back down the chain or up the chain and touches funders. And when I was working at Tidewater Canada foundation. That was one of those things that kind of blindsided a lot of Canadians because they were used to the US being the place with really ugly, rough-and-tumble politics and conflict and this was something that happened in Canada.
The specifics of it, we could go on for hours, and I've tried to put a lot of it out of my mind. The conservative Harper government of the day in Canada, Prime Minister Harper, had the number one policy priority of developing energy resources in Alberta, and a very, very, very tiny proportion of the work of Tides Canada makes way involved energy in Alberta, and by tiny, I mean like 1%. It was a grant here and there to support a community taking on a fossil fuel development that they didn't like that kind of thing.
The overwhelming majority of the work that I did, my team did my colleagues did buy dollars, and staff time was unrelated. It was in the Arctic. It is related to forest conservation. It is related to indigenous cultural revitalization. Related to rural economic development, it was all good stuff, but we got targeted by the feds as one of several dozen charities across Canada who were supposedly working with the foreign enemy, meaning philanthropy from the US to undermine the Canadian energy economy, and so that led to Years of persecutory audits by the Canada Revenue Agency, the equivalent of the IRS in the states, looking for malfeasance that didn't exist led to campaigns against Canadian nonprofits being able to take US grants that, in the end, have gone nowhere. That led to campaigns against nonprofits being able to engage in policy and allowable non-partisan political activity.
It meant that we were under pressure for years in communications that were very public, audits from federal agencies and, ultimately, the organization and the issues have kind of prevailed, but they haven't gone away right now the Premier of Alberta has a special Commission that is looking into foreign funding in the US, mostly for environmental nonprofits in Alberta, and how that is trying to undermine their energy economy.
So, this is the kind of stuff that can happen anywhere in the world. Sometimes there's a xenophobic component to it. We've seen this with nonprofits in Russia that have been persecuted by the Putin government for taking money from US foundations. We've seen it with some nonprofits in India. I'm involved in a little grant-making in India through a board I’m on.
And certainly, with the partisan politics in the United States, where charities and nonprofits span the whole spectrum from far right to far left and everything in between, and if there's distance between the government of the day and charities doing certain things, you can get these kinds of public conflicts and communications.
And so, I think it is. You know what it all boils down to be prepared to do good and be prepared for that occasionally to be a little bit stressful, and when it gets stressful, find a way to talk to your peers and talk to your colleagues who have been through it before and build a support network around yourself, but don't give up. You know, follow the letter of the law, do it legally, and do it smartly.
But don't give up because people will sometimes harass you if they think what you're doing hurts their interests.
So, let's see. There are just so many fun things to talk about, but I guess I just want to sort of talk about the fun side of funding now that we've talked about some of the more stressful stuff.
I sort of want to talk to you about, you know, one of the things that I value so much is our friendship. And just the ability to like what you represent is I was just talking among colleagues about how to support the field, we have these wonderful conferences that we haven't been able to go to recently, but we do hear from amazing nonprofits, but we also hear from each other, and a lot of us are in that funny role of talking to so many nonprofits and different folks.
It's interesting when I've talked to some donors and funders; some donors and funders don't realize that's out there. Or they don't realize that if the issue they're working on doesn't have a network like that, they could create one, and I just sort of wanted to talk with you about what you've gotten out of these kinds of networks and how you feel about them because you know it's again a leading question because yeah, I know we have a ton of fun.
I mean, I know funders who like to go it alone, and they might sort of pay attention to what other funders are doing, but mainly they do that because they want someone to maybe, you know, match their grant or something. So, it's very instrumental.
I have found deeper networks of funding. One of the most satisfying things since I came to this field, and I was really worried when I left academia, where I had deep You know, networks of Colleagues said in research and teaching that there wouldn't be any equivalent in philanthropy, and that was not the case. Like, almost immediately after I became a funder, within a month, I got told that I should go to some big Funder meetings, and I went to two because they happened to be happening.
And I have career-long friendships that resulted from those initial interactions, sometimes with colleagues we've bonded over little things that might be negatives or stressors, like a grantee having a huge problem, being sued, or suing somebody. There's a meltdown on the board, and so you talk to other funders and figure out how you can get through that situation together and support the organization and deal with a crisis grant that you have to explain to your board.
So, I've bonded with Funder colleagues over stuff like that. I've also been involved in what you might call field-building engagements with colleagues, so if a bunch of funders gets together, maybe it's over drinks at a bar, or maybe it's over reading long analytical papers, and we figure out that we have some things that we don't know, and we collectively will be more effective if we understand them better.
So, there is the seed of creating a shared learning enterprise might be hiring a consultant to research and write something. It might be taking a trip together to a place and interacting with communities and grantees as a group of funders, instead of individual funders. Separately getting off the plane and wasting the time of communities and grantees. Those are great. And sometimes those lead to the creation of permanent new Funder communities. One that I have been involved with from the very beginning was funders working in the Arctic, way back when I first started in philanthropy. I got together with Fred, your partner, and several other funders.
We created something that ended up becoming a real institution, the Arctic Funders Group, which is now the Arctic Funders Collaborative, and we hired staff. We created a board. I chaired that board and hired one of the directors for a few years, but mostly it was about funders working in a part of the world remote from where any of them live. Learning how to operate respectfully in that part of the world.
And we learned by doing things together by gathering together, taking field trips together, engaging in deep dialogues with northerners, and granting, and now all these years later, that continues to be a concern. And when a new funder doesn't know anything about that region, whether it's Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, the Russian Far East, or northern Scandinavia, they can come to the Arctic Funders Collaborative. And instead of having to learn from scratch the way we all did. They've got a door that is open to help them learn quickly and efficiently, build relationships, and have peers that have learned the hard way what to do and what not to do and would welcome a new college to do things that they can't do on their own because there's always a need for new ideas, new funders, and new dollars in any community.
So, there are these communities that exist, and it's not that hard to find them, and some of the intermediaries, whether they're individual consultants, program officers, or organizations, can help you find those things. And if you can't find them, they can help you create them.
So great, David, I love all of this, and we're going to have links to all these things you're referencing in my show notes that are on my website, so I'll make sure that's all there, and anything else, David, you know, I don't even want to end this conversation because I love it so much, but…
At that time, we went there.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, anything else that you can think of that I didn't ask you about that? You'd like to bring up. You know, any additional words of wisdom from you?
Well, I mean for any funder. I guess I'd say don't assume it's easy. Always assume that there's a way to make it fun. But maybe not all the time. But it should be fun, and I assume that understanding places and building relationships are worth investing in, and not just once, but in sustaining that understanding, which will make you effective, and will increase the joy in the philanthropic work.
Thanks for that. Can I ask you one more question? I thought of that while we were talking, and you were just saying, do you think a person needs to be super rich to make a difference, or can they make a difference with smaller amounts of money too? And I shouldn't say smaller. I don't think any amount of money I'm giving you is enough own bias. First, I didn't tell you that, but I guess I am.
Do you want to just answer the question for me?
I think I know it. Asking for an answer, I think I Think about how you can make a difference with any amount of money you have. But I want to ask you that question. Do you think you can make a difference with any amount of money you have to give it, and also does it do it? Are there things you want to consider, depending on how much you have to give to be effective?
So, of course, you can make a difference with any amount of money you have to give. The more zeros that are in your bank account, the more different kinds of things you can do. You also have more potential to screw up if you have more zeros in your bank account, so you know, as a not-so-wealthy person, my spouse and I engage in our philanthropy every year, and you know, we did well this year.
This year, we made donations, not grants. 96 different organizations in two countries Ranging from, you know, like 50 bucks to 500 bucks And Amy and I spent days doing research, doing homework, doing due diligence, thinking about the domains that we were interested in and the places, and researching organizations that we weren't already familiar with, and compiling lists of ones that we were familiar with. What we did on a personal level was no different than what the board of a billion-dollar foundation might do with professional staff.
So, I think this can be done at any scale most foundations in the US and Canada are family foundations that don't have any staff. They just got engaged. Families may be an endowment of a certain grant-making budget if they're even remotely strategic about their money. Meaning four or five figures, let's say to a small to medium-sized organization to keep the lights on, or a medium-sized organization to seed a new initiative that can attract matching money. Those kinds of grants, as we say here in Canada, can punch above their weight and make more of a difference than just the dollars and cents on paper would seem to. And then you look at the big funders—you know, the ones with billion-dollar-plus endowments and $100 million-plus grant-making budgets. And they can screw up and waste their money. They can make an enormous difference. So, you know, I think the lesson is that. You can't assume anything about effectiveness from the Size of grants.
That's awesome. You do refer on occasion to some situations where Funders have made big mistakes and have hurt nonprofits, and I know this is a sensitive area. I don't need you to name names, but I'm wondering if you could pull out a hypothetical; maybe that would just add a little more flavor to what that would mean, where you come in, and actually, you do more damage than good to a nonprofit or an issue that you care about.
I can think of one, and if you give me enough time, I could probably think of two or six in a case where a significant policy needs to be changed. How communities get funded for housing and homelessness, say, or how mining is regulated in a country, or particular approaches to climate change Could be any policy. It can be a multi-year process to get that policy changed, and it involves all sorts of things: community consultation, business consultation, working with elected officials and government bureaucrats to develop what legislation might look like—you name it.
If that's a 5 to 10-year process and funding from a funder three or four years of that, and people invest those years of their careers in doing government relations, doing business development, doing community consultation, and then the funder pulls out and the work can't be sustained… That's not just wasted money in terms of those pieces of work not leading to outcomes on that specific policy.
That is damaging because all the individuals that you've funded through your nonprofit are grantees who put their necks on the line to make promises because your money made them think they could. If that plug gets pulled, those people are starting to dry, they might not have effective relationships for the rest of their careers, and the funder can just dance on and prance on to the next thing. But those grantees are reputationally and personally on the hook for work that got halfway done. And that was work that getting halfway done might have done more damage than not starting in the first place.
So, I think that's a general sort of scenario that could apply in all sorts of places, and again, it's not a matter of funders. Being afraid to engage because they're not sure about longevity. It's about funders just being attentive to the circumstances, having peripheral vision, and thinking about tools to give grantees a soft landing if they are going to move on to something else. Working with funder colleagues to help backfill funds that they might have to pull out for legitimate reasons. So, it's just not unilateral. It's paying attention.
Well, that's an important piece, David, isn't it?
Is having an exit strategy as a funder as important when you exit as when you enter a situation? But I do know in my mind that there are no names out here in the podcast world. But I know there are plenty of examples where funders just sort of leave and don't carefully and thoughtfully.
And that kind of stinks when that happens. And again, you know, there are ways to make lemonade and do philanthropy. And so, if you're a small or medium founder and you know a big funder is going to leave a place, they're going to do it transparently and thoughtfully with a 5-year lead time, let's say. Those are great opportunities for a small funder to enter.
They might never have as many dollars as the Big Funder, who's leaving, but every one of those dollars can have three to five times more effective. Because the grantees are so grateful that someone's coming in when the big Kahuna is leaving, and they're very careful about what they want to plan to do with what they know is a smaller amount of money. But it's not zero money, and so I've seen exactly that situation. Where giant Funder leaves the place. A smaller funder comes in and can be tremendously effective and tremendously appreciated, so you know it's an ecosystem of funders. Big, medium, small—just as in, it's an ecosystem of kinds of grantees. From all sorts of different styles and approaches to the work, and it takes that whole ecosystem to make this thing. Come along smoothly.
Wonderful, David. Thank you so much for your time. This was a great interview, and I just really appreciate all your thoughts. You know, I can't wait till we can see each other.
Oh, it'll be great. Yeah, totally.