What does Jeremy Lin have to do with the future of philanthropy?
I got some insight into that question recently when I joined Ruth Cummings and Jaimie Mayer Phinney, both trustees of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, at the Council ON Foundation’s Family Philanthropy Conference. Ruth and Jaimie spoke on a panel that was billed as a “conversation on how cultures, nationalities, and communities are making a difference.” The other panelists included a woman who had set up her foundation after winning the lottery and former NBA superstar Alonzo Mourning and his wife.
The panel was fascinating, and I was inspired to hear our trustees powerfully tell the story of Nathan Cummings, the philosophy behind the foundation, and our unusual self-identity as an institution guided by Jewish values to create change far beyond the confines of our own community. But it was Jaimie’s response when asked what NCF saw as philanthropy’s most important goal that got me thinking about the Knicks’ out-of-nowhere point guard phenomenon.
“I think we really need to take risks. The reason why non-profits aren’t taking risks is because they are worried about losing funding. And the reason why philanthropists aren’t taking risks is because we are worried about being good stewards to the money.”
Jaimie closed her response by noting that while the philanthropic community needs to invest in superstars like Mourning, we also need to spend some time taking risks on overlooked players like Lin. Click here to watch her full response.
This is a provocative question. Most of us, as individuals and institutions, have at one point achieved a breakthrough because we were willing to take a risk. But it is easy for even the most adventurous among us to become satisfied betting on sure things. And when we do, game changers can be overlooked.
Non-profits aren’t basketball teams. We don’t have thousands of well-paid scouts meeting with new talent to make sure the best and brightest join our movements. There is no Moneyball-esque data analysis being done to help us maximize our staff ROI. Even our most famous non-profit leaders are obscure when compared to world class athletes or entertainers.
And yet despite the differences, we DO invest, ultimately, in people. Like Dan Swinney, a 67-year-old former machinist and union organizer who is a national leader in the effort to make the US a global contender in sustainable, advanced manufacturing. Or Jason DaSilva, who was diagnosed with Primary-progressive Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 26. He and his partner, Alice Cook, are developing AXSmap (pronounced 'access map'), an innovative way to find and talk about accessible places, as a companion piece to his documentary When I Walk.
If we are attached to stereotypes about what makes for effective leaders – pedigree, charisma, gender, race – we will undoubtedly overlook people who can make the difference between failure and success.
Thanks to Jaimie, and Jeremy Lin, I will look twice when unusual opportunities present themselves. I hope you will too.