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Philanthropic Moral Courage: A Compass for Leading Boldly

April 2017

Kimalon Meriweather, Program Officer, Cleveland Foundation
Deidre Griffith, Program Director, Missouri Foundation for Health
Marcy Felsenfeld, Senior Program Officer, Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey
Randy Lopez, Program Officer, Wyandotte Health Foundation
Shally Iyer, Director of Programs, Metta Fund
Ace Eversley, Program Consultant, Aetna Foundation, Inc
Tanya Shah, Senior Program Officer, The Commonwealth Fund
Erica Snow, Portfolio Director, The Colorado Health Foundation
Katie Wehr, Program Officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Janelle Woods-McNish, Director of Service and Giving, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation
Faculty Mentor: Gabriela Alcalde, Vice President, Policy and Program, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

Moral courage and risk-taking were hot topics of conversation during our experience as fellows of the 2016 Terrance Keenan Institute for Emerging Leaders. The timing of the conversation was perfect, as we gathered in Washington, DC, fresh off the heels of one of the most polarizing presidential campaigns in recent history. Our discussions centered on how moral courage is a fundamental leadership characteristic and can be the fuel that ignites the fire of bold action. As fellows, we represent private, corporate, family, and community foundations. While our philanthropic focus varies, the concept of moral courage—the ability and courage to act in line with our principles even in the face of potentially adverse consequences—emerged as an essential topic on how we see our leadership now and in the future.

Foundations are designed to be bold: they have more flexibility in how they allocate resources than public entities or nonprofit organizations, and they have the independence and nimbleness needed to take risks where other entities cannot. With this flexibility, we asked ourselves: As philanthropic professionals, are we taking meaningful risks to improve society? Moral courage became the phrase consistently used as we began to think differently about our role in philanthropy, to examine our core beliefs, and to change how we interact with the communities we serve.  

Our conversation evolved to include stories of ways in which we acted with moral courage and times when we wish we had been able to act more boldly. Moral courage can be triggered by a grand or monumental event, such as a funding priority, or in the smallest, daily occasion, such as a grant review decision. Grantmakers In Health (GIH) exemplified moral courage and risk taking when its board of directors decided to change the location of the 2017 Annual Conference on Health Philanthropy because of a new North Carolina law that reversed a local ordinance that had extended rights to gay and transgender people, prevented city and county governments from setting a minimum-wage standard for private employers, and limited how people can sue for discrimination in state court. GIH followed the action with a statement that explained the board’s decision and expressed a continuing commitment to health, equity, fairness, and opportunity for all people.  

During our fall convening, one of our guest speakers further challenged us to think about ways to act with moral courage. As the CEO of the Horizon Foundation, Nicolette Highsmith Vernick sought to create a healthier Maryland by acting boldly with a high-risk and high impact strategy.

Her work at the foundation helped us realize that:

  • Moral courage in philanthropy paves a path towards innovation, allowing for the discovery of new approaches that may move beyond tried-and-true, evidence-based solutions.
  • Acts of moral courage need not be taken recklessly. Foundations can establish productive boundaries, where they can develop evaluation and contingency strategies to track and evolve their work.
  • Collaborative community engagement is essential to the development and execution of the strategy for relevancy, stakeholder alignment, and staying power.

The discovery of unique solutions to health problems may require thinking outside the box and stepping into the unknown, unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable. It requires that philanthropic leaders peel back their assumptions and get comfortable with uncertainty. A culture of open, honest dialogue—within, between, and outside of foundations—is vital to enact bold actions that create safe, healthy, and diverse communities.

While our cohort of fellows has a strong intuition about what moral courage is, we continue to wrestle with how we apply these insights to our work and our leadership skills. To help develop this skill, we have committed to forming a “brain trust” to discuss challenges and opportunities, and inspire one another to take bold steps to create meaningful change without straying from our missions.

If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever. —Saint Thomas Aquinas

Setting a Course for Moral Courage

Stay the course! Philanthropists understand that changes in behavior and policy are rarely accomplished in the short-term. Leaders must keep an eye on the horizon. As Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, relayed at the GIH Fall Forum, we have a need and the privilege to think long term. A foundation can continue to meet its mission by staying the course and adjusting along the way. This approach requires a foundation to maintain meaningful relationships with key stakeholders in the community and partnerships with local governments to manage the uncertainty.

All hands on deck! Rapid-response philanthropy can allow for the quick release of needed resources, from small to large amounts of money. Through abbreviated processes and/or working through trusted networks, foundations can address immediate organizational and community needs. Funds could also be used to advance or organize around issues that may not be funded through other sources.

Batten down the hatches! There are concerns in the field that traditional sources of public funds may not be available in the near-term. By providing operational support, philanthropists can invest resources in agencies through periods of uncertainty and possible loss of program income. This approach might be “stay the course” for some foundations or a change for other foundations. Some foundations may extend grant periods while others may invest in pilot programs with clear articulation of assumptions about sustainability. Overall, foundations must decide how to concentrate funds for specific issues areas or with community partners.

Ahoy! Research, data collection, and analysis can be used for scenario building to work through policy solutions, such as repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Foundation support for high-quality media coverage, journalism, and the inclusion of diverse stories and voices can have a significant influence on policy discussion. Funding for advocacy and organizing can ensure that all voices are heard in issue areas that are important to health funders.

Set sail!

  1. Know your guiding principles.
  2. Understand the implications of foundation action and inaction.
  3. Recognize philanthropy’s unique position in the community, or on a particular issue, to advance the cause.
  4. Seek guidance and support from all stakeholders and partners.
  5. Process and revisit decisions on an iterative basis with community members, foundation leadership, and other stakeholders.
  6. Share concerns and fears with foundation leadership in regular, open dialogue.
  7. Consult and collaborate with other funders and colleagues who have taken similar steps.
  8. Be bold and know that you are not alone.