Several months ago, Comment magazine editor-in-chief Anne Snyder visited Indianapolis and spent time discussing philanthropy and the public good. Her talk focused on her book The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Social and Moral Renewal, and how her visits to philanthropic individuals and organizations around the country shaped her vision for what philanthropy could do.
Through spotlighting “exemplary institutions” and including a list of 16 questions focused on quality character and character formation, Snyder’s book studies how character is forged in a society where we often question the role of character and how it shapes our lives.
It’s interesting to consider how character plays a role in the philanthropic space. How does character shape giving and volunteering? Does the character of a nonprofit influence our giving or volunteering decisions? How do nonprofits view themselves, and what is their role in a moral ecosystem? We talk about giving time, talent, and treasure, but how does testimony play a role in building new norms and institutions?
I’m using Snyder’s own words here, but they are interesting thoughts when considering philanthropy today. How many times do we hear about “effectiveness” or “outcomes” when it comes to “judging” nonprofits and evaluating whether or not they make an impact.
To me, it seems like a complete mindset shift. What if we looked at nonprofits based on their character, and let that be the judge of whether or not they create impact? Is it possible?
I ponder, specifically, an organization that might serve thousands of people every year in some way. If we asked about the relationships that organization builds, or its engagement with its clients or members, or its promotion of agency, would we understand the impact that the organization has without evaluating numbers and long-term outcomes? Does an organization’s character shape its long-term outcomes?
It seems to boil down to a simple thought: We state how difficult nonprofit effectiveness is to measure. Would using a guide to character erase or decrease the use of strict outcome judgments? Snyder suggests that using character to inform our philanthropic decisions could build new norms and shape institutions for the better.
When we discover how institutions use character to drive mission work, maybe we can use patterns and logic as examples to drive our own, even if the missions themselves are completely different.
I’ve asked more questions than provided answers, but it’s interesting to consider how nonprofit character might shape mission and practices, and think about how other institutions could use character to influence their own work and build their communities.
Learn more about philanthropy and community from Anne Snyder and New York Times columnist David Brooks at the 17th Annual Thomas H. Lake Lecture on March 12.