Mak­ing change: Phil­an­thropic foun­da­tions may be the key

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - By Paul Ari­naga

Hawaii faces a myr­iad of in­tractable prob­lems, in­clud­ing home­less­ness, the high cost of liv­ing, the need to di­ver­sify the econ­omy, cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. More­over, many of these prob­lems need to be ad­dressed now, not in 10 years.

We need to mo­bi­lize, but it seems that many peo­ple have given up on so­ci­ety. Since re­turn­ing to Hawaii one year ago, I have been struck by the anger, frus­tra­tion and hope­less­ness ex­pressed by cit­i­zens about Hawaii’s cur­rent di­rec­tion and gov­er­nance.

Whether true or not, govern­ment is judged in­com­pe­tent or un­car­ing; politi­cians are seen as cor­rupt or self-serv­ing; and busi­ness lead­ers are viewed as pri­mar­ily driven by the profit mo­tive.

Sim­i­larly, many civil so­ci­ety groups such as unions, non­prof­its and ac­tivist or­ga­ni­za­tions are crit­i­cized for cap­tur­ing ben­e­fits that pri­mar­ily ac­crue to their mem­bers or for pur­su­ing nar­row pol­icy agen­das. Dis­parate groups fight each other and have dif­fi­culty find­ing com­mon ground. A friend of mine calls this the “crabs in a bucket” phe­nom­e­non.

Phil­an­thropic foun­da­tions are in a unique po­si­tion to solve the press­ing prob­lems we face, free of the “bag­gage” that other groups in so­ci­ety carry. Aside from fi­nan­cial re­sources, they have pro­fes­sional staff, ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion and re­la­tion­ships with lead­ers in the busi­ness com­mu­nity, govern­ment, academia and civic so­ci­ety. Fur­ther­more, foun­da­tions are not lim­ited to one is­sue; they can an­a­lyze and ad­dress prob­lems broadly.

It is time for foun­da­tions to take on a greater role as or­ches­tra­tors of change. They can or­ga­nize coali­tions of groups from all cor­ners of so­ci­ety, then col­lec­tively an­a­lyze prob­lems, de­fine strate­gies and set up projects. They can go be­yond their tra­di­tional role as fun­ders by pro­vid­ing ad­vice, guid­ance and close mon­i­tor­ing.

Foun­da­tions can also ap­ply sys­tems think­ing to iden­tify sys­temic prob­lems and so­lu­tions. This type of anal­y­sis would tell them where to put their money for the great­est im­pact. Even though they have fi­nite re­sources and may be con­strained by the stip­u­la­tions of their donors, foun­da­tions are well-po­si­tioned to take on this new role.

Many foun­da­tions in Hawaii are al­ready form­ing coali­tions, such as the Hawaii En­vi­ron­men­tal Fun­ders Group. These seem like ma­jor steps in the right di­rec­tion and the ini­tia­tors of such groups should be com­mended for their vi­sion. What I am propos­ing is to go even fur­ther by look­ing at prob­lems from a strate­gic sys­tems van­tage point and bring­ing to­gether fo­cused con­sor­tiums to get things done. Over time, the deeper col­lab­o­ra­tive re­la­tion­ships — or “so­cial cap­i­tal” — formed in these con­sor­tiums will them­selves be­come valu­able.

As the man­ager of a farm­ers’ co­op­er­a­tive for the past year, I helped to for­mu­late and im­ple­ment a strat­egy to in­crease lo­cal food pro­duc­tion. While this strat­egy met with some suc­cess, in hind­sight I re­al­ized that work­ing in iso­la­tion on one tiny piece of the puz­zle was not des­tined to have the ma­jor sys­temwide im­pact that’s needed. A more com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach is re­quired, but an or­ga­ni­za­tion can only do so much act­ing alone.

Foun­da­tions have none of these lim­i­ta­tions. With their scope and pro­fes­sion­al­ism, they are well-po­si­tioned to step in, bring peo­ple to­gether and solve prob­lems at a sys­temic level. In an era of dys­func­tional pol­i­tics and jaded, dis­en­gaged cit­i­zens, foun­da­tions may of­fer the best hope for bring­ing about last­ing change.

Paul Ari­naga is a grant writer and com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­sul­tant who has raised over $1.1 mil­lion for Hawaii food and health­care projects.

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