The legendary Beatles song Come Together can be interpreted as a psychedelic riff on the band members’ personalities as they came together to create one of the greatest musical ensembles ever. With lofty ambitions for philanthropy, including emerging generations’ efforts to “do good,” we should all be more open to learning with each other. Being social animals, we learn best in communal settings, but to make the learning grow it needs to be shared.
There are technical benefits to greater openness, allowing us to advance research that is often limited by siloed information. Beyond being more open, we should also be more purposeful in forging communities of discovery to improve performance and develop perspective.
There are important innovative efforts to work together and collaborate in philanthropy. For example, Fund for Shared Insight brings grantors and grantees together to learn from each other. The bestseller New Power by Heimans and Tims illustrates a multitude of viral participatory movements that are enabled by the decentralized power available to most anyone with access to the Internet in our “hyperconnected” world.
Nonetheless, still too much of what passes for insight in philanthropy depends on exclusive access to the very wealthiest individuals and institutions. We remain obsessed with wealth as a driver of philanthropy and seek to learn more about high net worth individuals and their philanthropy.
However, many of those individuals are often inaccessible except to a few privileged institutions, as they do not want to be constantly subject to solicitors’ wiles.
Therefore, we should acknowledge those among our wealthiest fellow citizens who engage with experts and the public to inform and explain their giving. For example, Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz have set up the Open Philanthropy Project to share their learning. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its principals are vigorous communicators about their giving.
Even when high net worth individuals share their knowledge, the receivers of funds are also responsible for locking up too much data. They are often reluctant to share their data even after it has outlived its usefulness for competitive advantage or after contemporary privacy concerns are no longer relevant. It is ironic that our most successful fundraising universities and medical centers, whose excellence depends on the free flow of publicly available research, are in no rush to open up data that might help us better understand fundraising dynamics at their rarefied level.
Some large organizations like the Salvation Army have bucked the trend. Their data is used in a partnership with our school to generate the Human Needs Index in order to improve understanding and responsiveness to poverty in the U.S.
However, those same universities can also play a critical role in forming communities, which are vital to discovery.
Universities that help first-generation students succeed, wrap them in forms of community—posses, advisors, peer-groups—through which they can navigate a learning environment that is new to them.
This is also what we do in welcoming students to the novel experience of our online graduate programs. We welcome students with online orientations and advising, invite them to attend in-person courses at any time, encourage connections with their fellow online classmates, and provide opportunities for online students to participate in visiting lectures and career workshops. To enable online learning, we draw on pedagogical research to create online and offline community support.
Science also progresses through communities of scholars. Disciplines channel discovery and academic peers share a commitment to the quality and integrity of the ideas that make up their craft. Paradigms emerge and are transformed through community dynamics, which leads to progress and the advancement of knowledge.
We need a lot more coming together in communities to advance both learning and the discovery of new knowledge in philanthropy. But not all ways of coming together advance useful knowledge. Medieval guilds guarded their expertise, rebuffed critique through authority and limited the transmission of knowledge to protect their privilege. The scientific revolution reversed these principles. Openness is vital to discovery. It is time to clean out the philanthropic attic of some vestigial medieval practices.
In the words of another Beatles song off the same album: “Here comes the sun.” The growth of giving circles, better maps of the philanthropic landscape and increasing transparency in philanthropy all point to the potential for both openness and coming together to advance discovery.
So how does one build a community of discovery? It can start by choosing the kind of conferences to attend, media to engage, books to read and people to meet. Do you have an adequate mental map of the different strands of inquiry and expertise that affect your field of interest? Are you keen to better understand or expand your interests?
These are some of the questions to ask, but ultimately the best way to prepare for different communities of discovery to help your passions flourish is an excellent liberal arts education. And if you think generosity is interesting and powerful, look at academic programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean