As funders and leaders of philanthropic support organizations, we have been given great responsibility and trust to do our best for those we encounter in our work, similar to the responsibility and trust given to the physicians, nurses, and technicians who deliver health care. For me, spending many days in the hospital reinforced this perspective. I wasn’t the patient, although in countless hours beside my wife’s bedside, I had considerable time to observe and learn.
What became evident to me is the incredible parallel between philanthropy and the delivery of medical care. Doctors, nurses, and support staff of all types were regular visitors to my wife’s bedside. Some came with urgency, whereas others had the luxury of accommodating her, as when the physical therapist offered to return later upon arriving to find my wife sleeping. Each brought a desire to help her improve, just as we each in philanthropy share a desire to bring about change or sustain progress.
Whereas many aspects of our hospital stays were the same, the variations provided a window onto how people deliver care under varying circumstances. Over time I watched as different nurses brought an important daily injection. Most came in with a smile and a reminder of the medical purpose. They would engage in conversation and offer a choice of arm or leg for receiving the shot. Others (only a few, thankfully) came in, barely said a word, and, in a matter-of-fact manner, administered the injection before leaving. Physically, the injection’s medical effect on the body was the same, yet psychologically its impact on the mind was considerably different.
I witnessed how those brief conversations, explanations, and respect for the patient made a huge difference. This got me thinking about grantmaking. We can deliver a grant check in the mail with a letter and paperwork to return. Or we can precede that letter with a phone call or visit, a conversation about what we hope the grant will accomplish, and words of support. I submit to you there is a difference—and one that matters.
We funders, as caregivers, have a responsibility to deliver that care warmly and with compassion. Yet, at times, do we lose sight of this responsibility? Do we spend too much time thinking about ourselves and our preferences? Do we set programs or policies because they suit us—without knowing whether they suit our grantees? Do we spend too little time getting to know what our grant partners need to thrive and, ultimately, help us achieve the impact we desire?
On more than one occasion, I questioned our doctors, just as a nonprofit might question a funder. At one end of the spectrum was the doctor who acted as if I were an imposition, whose body language and brevity barely provided an answer, much less any degree of anxiety reduction on my part. Another doctor was the complete opposite. When I asked a question, she took me over to a computer screen and pulled up x-rays, CT scans, and test results. We talked about changes and trends and progress. Although I’m sure I didn’t truly grasp all the medical information she passed on, her warmth and desire to interact with me honestly provided me information as well as confidence and comfort. When you’re working with a nonprofit, which type of funder are you? Which do you want to be?
Physician, author, and teacher Dr. Jerome Groopman has remarked, “Certainly the primary imperative of a physician is to be skilled in medical science, but if he or she does not probe a patient’s soul, then the doctor’s care is given without caring, and part of the sacred mission of healing is missing.”
The same is true for funders. Delivering hope and encouragement is part of our sacred mission to bring about change and transform communities.
My time by my wife’s bedside also led me to reflect on perhaps the most famous line attributed to the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm,” which I’ve learned Hippocrates didn’t include in his oath, but rather, in another of his works, Of the Epidemics. Regardless of the source, the message is one that aptly applies to all of us who make grants, share knowledge, convene stakeholders, and otherwise act in pursuit of philanthropic missions.
We too can cause harm by asking for unreasonable reports, setting unrealistic timelines, or urging grantees to follow our vision rather than their own. We can come to relationships unaware of our biases and blind spots, or otherwise interfere with a grantee’s health or growth. I dare say most of us have fallen short in our work at one time or another—I know I have—and I challenge us all to be even more mindful of our actions today, and every day.
My foray into learning about the Oath also taught me that many medical schools use updated versions, which makes sense given that things have changed since Hippocrates lived in the early fifth century. In one version I found two lines that resonated loudly for philanthropy as well as medicine:
- I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
- I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
Substitute “patient” with “grant recipient,” and these too become guiding principles to ground each of us in our work. They certainly help me remember the privilege of philanthropy I’ve been given, as well as the responsibility unquestionably linked to it. They also make me grateful for the friends and colleagues I have met through Exponent Philanthropy, who I can call on for advice or a listening ear when I am able to say without shame, “I know not.”
As funders and leaders, we have been given the gift of opportunity—and the challenge to accept that mantel with humility, care, and compassion. Let’s each aspire to good deeds done well and hold one another accountable to the same.