Learning to be a 'guide on the side' in philanthropy

Learning to be a 'guide on the side' in philanthropy

Posted on December 03, 2014 by Judy Sedgeman

A unique aspect of The Patterson Foundation’s approach to partnerships in philanthropy is the assignment of a consultant to serve as a “guide on the side” -- someone who offers intellectual capital in addition to the financial support TPF provides.

As other foundations examine this partnership model, recognizing the limitations and opportunities in this arrangement is critical. Most consultants are used to a proactive advisory role with their clients and are treated as the “expert” from the outside coming in to solve problems. Truthfully, partners who have been in traditional grant-receiving relationships with other foundations are are likely to be baffled by the arrangement -- either fearing interference or hoping for management. But that is as far from the TPF partnering philosophy as one could get.

Keeping initiatives in perspective

When I was invited to take this "guide on the side" role with a TPF initiative -- The Collaboratory at Ringling College of Art and Design -- I was fascinated by the philosophy behind it. What I made of it is that initiative consultants have an obligation, in service to our fiduciary responsibility and in service to a partner's vision, to continually observe and keep the project in perspective. To reflect and consider unintended consequences of short-term decisions. To ask questions that might engage or redirect the partner’s clarity about outcomes when things appear to be veering away from the primary vision and mission.

But, initiative consultants also have an obligation not to get in the way. Not to make demands or “take over” in any way. Not to impose. What I made of it is that our job was to bring out the best in the partner and the partnership. We engage in a kind of innocent inquiry to help the partner, who is enmeshed in the daily details, to stay attuned to the big picture.

I was curious whether this would work out as well in practice as it seems to in theory. But now, with a year and a half of experience being a “guide on the side” for The Collaboratory at the Ringling College of Art and Design, I can enthusiastically say it works out even better in practice.

Here are three important things I’ve learned so far:

1.  Establishing rapport with the partner is primary and fundamental. The partnership relationship is built on genuine respect and good will, the basis of trust. The partner has to be comfortable speaking freely and counting on the initiative consultant's non-judgmental interest. The partner has to know you sincerely want them to succeed.

2.  The most critical skill is listening with a clear head and an open mind. There are moments of brilliance in a partner’s enthusiastic recounting of plans and events that need to be picked out and polished. They lead to questions like, “Did you realize what you just said? Could you talk a little more about that? It seems inspired.” There are also moments when warning signals blink, but the partner might miss them. They lead to questions like, “What do you think might result from the change in direction you’re considering now?”

3.  If the relationship gets off track or there is any kind of misunderstanding, address it and take responsibility for setting it right. Each initiative is a learning journey, with strategy refreshes along the way. The guide represents TPF's interest to ensure the initiative stays on course with expectations and alignment, or to help with adjustments. Our job is to understand and help the partner see more deeply, not to blame or seek validation. We are learning together, and mistakes are opportunities to see more clearly.

I've found that this work enriches me with every encounter. The learning I take from it will change all the remaining consulting I do for the rest of my career. It makes so much more sense to nurture than to direct -- a philosophy that is really making a difference with The Patterson Foundation's partnerships.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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