This is a time of bracing change within philanthropy, born of crisis and long-overdue reckoning.
We’ve witnessed encouraging shifts toward greater humility in the sector, more inclusive partnerships, and an intentional focus on learning and improvement. Yet, to have meaning, these shifts must be active, ongoing practices. And to remain relevant, compelling and enduring, they need to manifest through tangible outcomes. It’s too easy for the grand ideas to be reduced to mere slogans, especially in philanthropy, where accountability is limited.
Meaningful progress requires putting something significant at stake—most often certitude, credibility or control. The partnership between Magnify Community and The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW) that emerged in the crucible of 2021 took risks with all three.
Magnify Community was seeded by a funder collaborative in 2018 to develop, test and share new ways to solve a daunting challenge: bridging the gap between Silicon Valley’s breathtaking wealth and its cash-starved nonprofit sector, to make the region a better and more equitable place for all. Notably, Magnify Community was funded for an explicit three-year period. TPW is a long-standing global community of more than 400 philanthropists committed to learning, amplifying best practices, and unlocking philanthropic resources, and is set on exponential growth to meet the challenges of our time. Neither entity aggregated funds or made grants itself, but both had bold ambitions to catalyze funding for increased impact.
Our partnership (defined initially through informal information sharing, then evolving into a more formal agreement) was a transparent exercise in humble collaboration, and established a model that is unusual in the sector, one we hope others will replicate. It was grounded in a focus on the social impact we both wanted to see, and proceeded in a spirit of genuine curiosity about what donors want and need, all with a willingness to share credit and cede control in a very public way.
As an innovation lab designed to test, refine and open-source promising approaches to catalyze local philanthropy in Silicon Valley, Magnify Community placed learning and collaboration at the center of its mission and activities. (Those ranged from organizing high-capacity donors around a local philanthropy pledge to developing curated lists and issue briefs.) That meant openly experimenting and acknowledging what didn’t work, as well as what did.
Magnify was drawn to TPW as a partner because of TPW’s commitment to donor education in service of impact, and its pluralistic approach and agnosticism about which philanthropic vehicles its members use (foundation, donor-advised fund, etc.). TPW points to “trust and truth” as its lodestars. Similarly, Magnify donors valued having a trusted information source about local needs and opportunities from an organization that operated without vested interest—financial or otherwise. These donors were hungry for community and the opportunity for collective action, which are essential elements of TPW. Magnify came to understand these donor sentiments through ongoing and active listening: in many conversations, donor focus groups, and surveys of donors and philanthropic/financial advisors.
As Magnify built its knowledge base and a community of inspired local givers united through a local philanthropy pledge, it recognized that for both to grow and reach their greatest potential, Magnify would need to relinquish some control. Establishing a new local giving norm (“if you live here, you give here”), advancing a widely-adopted narrative about local needs and opportunities for impact, and making a set of practices more broadly adopted—all of which were Magnify goals—would require others in the ecosystem to participate and share leadership in the work. That meant allowing the work to continue and the community to evolve within its partner organizations, most notably, TPW.
As part of its own evolutionary learning journey, TPW had previously launched Action Labs to organize and educate donors around specific issue areas or geographically focused giving, because TPW members were eager for deeper communities of peers united by shared purpose and vision. Many TPW members found a new resonance in local giving during the early stages of COVID crisis and the racial justice reckoning as their eyes were opened to local inequities and they sought to learn more. The community of high-capacity Silicon Valley donors whom Magnify Community organized as part of its work formed the seed membership of a new Silicon Valley Action Lab within TPW, positioned to grow in the future and serve as a test-bed and model for other geographically focused Action Labs.
The opportunity to take a partnership between two independent organizations to the next level and allow key components of Magnify’s work to scale within TPW created the possibility of a win for all. With optimism and mutual trust, we took a leap of faith together on this experiment.
Taking this step aligned beautifully with the growth model Magnify was testing from its inception, and further liberated Magnify. As an entity with an explicit vision of moving urgently and purposefully so that it could learn, catalyze giving, and then pass the baton, Magnify Community occupied a uniquely powerful position. It could embrace candor wholeheartedly, and could train a laser focus on generating insight and impact without concerns about self-preservation or perpetuating its own position. Magnify also was able to pass forward the goodwill and community it generated through its work.
From the start, Magnify “learned out loud,” and did so through learning exchanges, as informal blogs, and open-sourcing its internal materials through a Google Drive. These included memos Magnify prepared describing the what, how and why of each of its initiatives, and how well they worked—or didn’t—providing a learning roadmap for its partners. For example, Magnify transparently shared how and why it evolved the local giving pledge that it crafted as an experiment in norm-shifting. It published the different versions of the written pledge form with commentary on the strategy, and described both the successful and less-successful approaches in recruiting pledgers. Magnify shared its successful approaches to leveraging the power of peers to spark greater giving (e.g., an appeal by philanthropic leader John A. Sobrato to his fellow pledgers to support a relief fund for local immigrants, and a Zoom event by the Grove Foundation board chair urging donors to save the home of a youth organization group). Other lessons challenged some core assumptions from the field—notably that insufficient big-bet philanthropy is a pipeline problem.
Rather than diminishing Magnify, this sharing increased its impact. It meant that Magnify’s allies, including TPW and its members, could embrace Magnify’s most promising strategies and avoid less productive ones. By leveraging Magnify’s external validation with their donors and colleagues, they were able to amplify their own stature in the ecosystem. And walking the transparency talk added credibility to the clubby world of philanthropy within the nonprofit sector. After all, how do we expect grantees to be honest with their funders or to embrace authentic assessment if funders and intermediaries don’t model that themselves?
Ultimately, after successfully organizing donors, catalyzing tens of millions of dollars, and sharing what it learned, Magnify Community sunset last year, passing the baton to TPW for them to amplify that impact and take it even further.
As philanthropy lurches into a new era, facing crises and attacks on the enterprise of philanthropy itself, this is an ideal time to focus on what values and practices we can advance together to create shared progress. Partnership and collaboration can transcend competition and can lead to a more collective approach in all aspects of philanthropic practice. The scarcity mindset within the nonprofit sphere can, unfortunately, be mirrored by intermediary organizations, including those working in the increasingly crowded and competitive field of donor/philanthropy support. It takes wisdom, humility and a bit of courage to let go.
We in philanthropy all recognize that the most powerful social change is about collaborative action. That requires sharing learning, sharing credit, trusting partners, and stepping back when that will advance progress. When these practices become common practices, we all will benefit.
Renee Kaplan is CEO of the Philanthropy Workshop. Catherine Crystal Foster is an entrepreneurial strategist and philanthropic leader, and founder and former CEO of Magnify Community.