Making change: Philanthropic foundations may be the key
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.