Transformational growth and change are topics du jour in the nonprofit sector, and especially in the context of a much-needed shift underway towards trust-based philanthropy: a movement to create authenticity in the relationships between donors and nonprofits, to address the power imbalances inherent in them, and to build mutual partnerships between them. Due in large part to the donors with extraordinary wealth who have signed The Giving Pledge, and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in particular, it seems that so much of the focus is on the “holy grail” of giving in particular — the mega gift, the transformational gift, the gift that will deliver us and everyone we serve from the struggle.
I understand why — the organization that I lead, Meals on Wheels of Southwest Ohio & Northern Kentucky — has received one, and friends … it’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and so much more. But we didn’t receive it because we were searching for it: Like so many good things tend to, it showed up when we were least expecting it.
If donors are beginning to make transformational gifts in this way, what are the implications for the nonprofits who receive and seek them? How do we truly get to authenticity and trust? I don’t believe that we need a resolution in our sector, we need a revolution: Maybe if we really want transformation in our organizations, communities, and world, we all need to simply allow.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Alchemist by Paolo Coehlo. It’s the story of a young shepherd named Santiago, who while in search of treasure and riches learns to listen to his heart. He believes in omens, and has recurring dreams about his destiny. After a meeting at a well with the girl with raven hair and dark eyes, Fatima, he almost abandons his search for his Personal Legend, which he believes to be a chest full of gold. Fatima, who represents unconditional love and selflessness, supports his literal and figurative journey even though it will take him away from her. He ventures into the desert and meets the Alchemist, who helps him to realize that his ambition and what he desires is really part of something much bigger than himself: the Soul of the World. In the end, he overcomes his fears and transforms himself into the wind. It’s an easy read, but also a deep, inspiring, and timeless allegory about intuition, trust, and transformation — and maybe, philanthropy.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
― Roald Dahl
Alchemy is an ancient, magical, and mystical practice that eventually developed into modern chemistry. In its simplest form, it was concerned with the conversion of base metals, like lead, into precious metals like silver and gold. This didn’t work, of course, in the traditional sense because it was based on an erroneous understanding of basic science. (It’s worth noting, though, that it was discovered after his death that Isaac Newton had written a voluminous number of alchemical notes during his life.) In a more complex understanding of the craft, alchemy is a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. It was the search for a universal panacea that promised immortality and healing, and of the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would transmute, or transform, an “immature” metal into a superior one that contained the ideal proportions of air, fire, water, and earth.
It was the quest for perfect balance.
To transmute means to turn — in form, appearance, or use — a thing into something different: conversion, metamorphosis, transfiguration, transformation, transmogrification. While these words all signify a shift into something else, “transmute” means something more: it is changing into something higher. Not just better … purer.
The metal couldn’t be made pure if the alchemist’s intentions were not. The Great Work, as it was called, could not be undertaken for selfish reasons, or out of greed. It was universal. It should be selfless, and not only for the greatest good — for the highest good. The work of the Alchemist was intended to be a labor of love for humanity.
The Great Work
COVID has taught us many lessons as a sector and a society, among the most important of which is that an incremental approach to change is insufficient if we’re truly going to solve the great problems of our time. We are in this extraordinary and brief (though it feels like forever to us right now) window of time in which we can truly embrace change and transform.
We need to think in terms of systems, and push the boundaries of what’s known and accepted within them. We must work together to find a better way: with other nonprofits, in public-private partnerships, with businesses, and with donors. We all have our own Personal Legends, and they are all part of something that is the same and yet greater than any of us.
What are our KPIs really measuring in this new day, nonprofits? Is it actual impact, or is it just a grind? Are our intentions always pure, or are we chasing a treasure trove of gold?
One of the most mind-blowing blog posts that I’ve ever read was this one from Community Funded a few years back: “The Evolution of Philanthropy and the Fall of the Fundraising Pyramid.” In it, the author writes,
“For a long time, philanthropy has been defined as ‘the giving of money to nonprofit organizations.’ However, this definition is quickly becoming obsolete. It’s evolving … that philanthropy is the action of transforming the social wellbeing of others through generosity. Giving is a transformational experience where an individual manifests their aspirational self. In other words, they actualize and acknowledge the person they want to be. Certainly, we are inspired to give because we want to impact the stories we are giving to, but we also desire to better define ourselves and our personal values. Because of that, we want the narratives we support to come from an authentic storyteller rather than an individual trying to achieve their monthly KPIs.”
What we’re missing when we seek transformation, but focus nearly exclusively on transactions and data points that measure them, is the change that must occur within the actual human hearts involved.
In his 2013 article in The Nonprofit Times, Eric Leland discusses how all giving should be transformational, and illustrates with the example of Sr. Georgette Lemuth, OSF, former President and CEO of the National Catholic Development Conference, during a workshop on “Building a Culture of Stewardship and Philanthropy.” Raising up the fundraiser as storyteller, she explained that everyone has a gift to offer:
“Some of us have a financial capacity that exceeds our needs. Some of us have the ability to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or heal the sick. Others (the fundraisers) have the ability to tell the story of those who feed the hungry to those who have the excess financial capacity; to engage them in the process, and to effectively and efficiently put that excess financial capacity to work to enable those who feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or heal the sick.”
In this version of the philanthropic journey story, the donor recognizes their power to further the organization’s mission, and their excess financial capacity is effectively and efficiently “transformed” into things that others need.
Along with organizations and resources, entire communities can be transformed through giving. The Morgridge Family Foundation’s tagline is “Disrupting Philanthropy. Transforming Communities.” They believe that transformative gifts change the trajectory of an organization to make exponential change possible, and that funders must identify a leader or organization with an innovative solution and accelerate its development forward. The timing must be right, there must be an element of risk and innovation, and the leader must be ready.
And when it all comes together? “It is the holy grail of philanthropy.”
The Holy Grail
MacKenzie Scott has given away billions of dollars over the past few years, moving at a pace unrivaled by any philanthropist of our time. Even more unusual than her sense of urgency is her unique approach: she gives large gifts, to organizations with which she has no prior relationship, and with no strings attached. Anyone who knows anything about the circumstances that led to her being in a position to do so (her marriage and subsequent divorce were frequently mentioned in the early days of her giving) will understand how truly remarkable it is that she is leading the way in the call for trust-based philanthropy with her giving. Anyone who has ever had their trust betrayed or broken will understand the depth of courage that she must possess to give so freely of herself, and with so much compassion, empathy, and love for humankind.
MacKenzie Scott did her homework, though. Her trust is not blind. She asked a team of advisors to help her accelerate her giving in 2020, identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results, with special attention to those operating in communities with high food insecurity, racial inequity, and poverty, with low access to philanthropic capital:
“We do this research and deeper diligence not only to identify organizations with high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached. Because our research is data-driven and rigorous, our giving process can be human and soft … These 384 carefully selected teams have dedicated their lives to helping others … they help by delivering vital services, and also through the profound encouragement felt each time a person is seen, valued, and trusted by another human being. This kind of encouragement has a special power when it comes from a stranger, and it works its magic on everyone.”
~ MacKenzie Scott, 384 Ways to Help
I have felt the power of being seen, valued and trusted by another human being, from a stranger. I rarely cry, and I’m generally very in control of my (albeit deeply felt) emotions. But when MacKenzie Scott’s team told me on a November 2020 phone call that we would be receiving a gift of approximately the size of our entire annual operating budget at the time, they had to sit with me for a good five minutes as I quietly wept and just kept repeating, “We’re going to be able to help so many people.” “It’s ok,” they said softly, “we know, it’s a lot.”
It changed me.
I have no doubt that MacKenzie Scott is as transformed as the people, leaders, organizations, and communities that are the beneficiaries of her extraordinary generosity. I know that I was personally transformed by the trust that she put in me, and that I’d walk through fire for her even though I’ve never met her. If I ran into someone on the street and they were talking trash about MacKenzie, it’s on — I’ve got her back. THIS is how loyalty is built. It is the authentic, honest, trusting relationships between donors and nonprofits (whether those are deep, and close, and span years or decades, or those that fall from the skies and bind us forever through the sheer impact that they have) that have the real potential to transform.
The Philosopher’s Stone
No one is better versed in the search for a healing panacea than a nonprofit professional — but maybe we have been on a quest for the wrong thing all along. It’s not the gift that’s important, it’s the journey that we’re all on together. It’s the collective impact that we’ll have.
Trust is the secret elixir that will change what could otherwise be transactional relationships and gifts into something higher, something transformational on many levels. Trusting ourselves, trusting our teams, and trusting donors enough to really let them into our work, our challenges, our opportunities is what makes us worthy in turn of the trust of donors, the public, our partners, and those we serve. This is the heart of trust-based philanthropy, and it is the future. It’s how we will truly change this world that is crying out for it — and how we will all transform in the process.
But how do we actually get to truly authentic relationships, based in trust?
Fundraisers will sometimes need to be the Alchemist, the change agent, acting with pure intentions and helping the donor to realize their Personal Legend in the context of the Soul of the World. Sometimes they will need to be Fatima, waiting patiently as the donor pursues other passions, priorities, or life paths. The Alchemist didn’t tell Santiago what his destiny was because there was a project that needed funding. Fatima didn’t rush him because he was moving too slowly for her campaign timeline.
“She’s mad, but she’s magic. There’s no lie in her fire.”
― Charles Bukowski
This magic will only be possible if the leaders of nonprofit organizations undergo our own transformation. Want to make a fundraiser’s eye twitch, and set them on a path that is destructive to your organization and your donor relationships? Talk to them about donor-centric philanthropy as you hand them an unattainable revenue goal. Tell them that you trust them as you require them to spend hours filling out spreadsheets of how many calls they made, instead of developing and supporting their ability to tell compelling stories, to bring people into the mission, to take donors by the hand and help them achieve their aspirational selves in service to your cause. Measure their worth in dollars.
We as leaders must have the courage to abandon many longstanding practices that are harmful to the spirits, bodies, and well-being of fundraisers, that are detrimental to the health of our organizations, that don’t come from a place of deep reverence and respect for the donor-nonprofit relationship, and that don’t inspire others to join us.
We need to have transparent, candid conversations with donors and funders about our needs, and theirs. I will never forget the time that I listened to a Foundation Officer talk about the agony that she went through when she thought about how there would never be enough money to meet the deep need in our community. I had so much empathy for her in that moment, because I feel the same agony on my side of the funding fence. We need more of that authenticity, more of that candor, more of that trust.
And then we need to hold hands and jump.
“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” the boy asked.
“Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you will find your treasure.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Alchemists never found the secret to transforming lead into its highest good, gold. I believe that as a sector, we can — if only we can strike the perfect balance between pushing ourselves and each other to greatness, and listening to our hearts. It’s going to take longer, it’s going to be harder, and it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be scary, and messy, and we will all make mistakes. But we can do better.
Let’s resolve ourselves to it. Let’s make some magic.
With a philosophy that includes using a holistic view of community issues in order to develop transformational service and fundraising strategies – while simultaneously remaining faithful to agency history, goals, and values – Jennifer Steele has more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit and human services sectors.
She currently serves as the CEO of Meals on Wheels of Southwest Ohio & Northern Kentucky, one of the largest Meals on Wheels organizations in the country.
Jennifer is also an accomplished lecturer and industry thought leader, and contributes as an adjunct instructor at the School of Social Work at Northern Kentucky University. She has also served on several national, state and local boards and executive committees, including The Kentucky Farm to Foodbanks (legislative) Oversight Committee, The Association for Professionals in Aging, The National Association of Social Workers, The Safety Net Alliance of Northern Kentucky, and The Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council, and was the co-chair of the Fundraising Committee for the Leadership Northern Kentucky Class of 2011. Jennifer currently serves on the national Board and Governance Committee of Meals on Wheels America.
Jennifer received her Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Public Administration from Northern Kentucky University, and then went on to earn the industry-respected Financial Success for Nonprofit Organizations Certificate from Cornell University in 2011. She recently completed a certificate in Business Innovation through IDEO in 2022.