Staff Blog

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This is a space where Foundation staff share their thoughts and musings on giving and community:


Posted by: Stuart Comstock-Gay on 2/3/2015

Humble. If there were one word that ought to drive philanthropists, that’s it. I am not saying it is always a word that does drive us. I am saying it ought to be. 

It can be exciting and fulfilling to work in the world of philanthropy, to collaborate and work with generous people, smart and committed community leaders, and visionaries—to feel that your effort makes a positive difference in the world.

Yet this work can easily lead one down a path of arrogance, of believing that we are smarter than we are. That is why I emphasize the word humble. The opportunity to engage in this field is a gift. We can make a difference in people’s lives. We can make things better. And yet, experienced and well-intentioned though we may be, we need to remember, always, that we may be wrong in our plans and theories, and we have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes.

And that leads me to Bill Gates. 

In a recent speech, he talked about what I would call the limits of philanthropy—and about being humble. He discussed what philanthropy does well, acknowledged its limitations, and emphasized the importance of constantly measuring progress—and adjusting course.

I like his honesty about the fact that a boatload of money doesn’t necessarily translate to meaningful impact. I like that he recognized the need to be humble and open to rethinking one’s work. That alone is an important thing for him to say and for all of us to recognize. We must understand our limits, and accept that our best ideas may not always pan out.

Yet importantly, he doesn’t stop there. 

Because while he acknowledges the Gates Foundation’s failures (among its successes), he also emphasizes what they are doing about it: learning from their work.

Some have looked at Gate’s comments and responded, “See, Bill Gates couldn’t fix anything, so we shouldn’t let wealthy philanthropists drive public policy.”

That misses the point. In being transparent about his work, Bill Gates isn’t trying to model success; he’s modeling a process: invest, measure, and adapt accordingly. What’s striking about the efforts of the Gates Foundation isn’t the lack of progress along a few fronts, it’s that they are able to quantify that there hasn’t been progress along those fronts, that they are being transparent about it, and that they are willing to adjust accordingly. It’s an approach that many public policy initiatives, along with charities, would do well to imitate.

We all need to be willing to change, to get better, and to keep pushing for progress. We’re trying to do that here, at the Community Foundation, as we double-down on measuring our own impact and effectiveness. Sometimes, we will get it completely right. Sometimes, we will get it completely wrong. What’s important is that we learn. 

And that starts with humility.

In truth, I find that Vermonters are very willing to tell us when things are not going the way we think they ought to go. And I hope that you all continue to tell us what isn’t working in addition to what is. It’s good for us, and it’s good for the field. And in the end, it’s good for the communities we serve.

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