PACS Blog/June 30, 2021

Can Philanthropy Help Humans Be Better at Being Human?

Stanford Senior Fellow Heather Lord discusses how she moved from 90’s tech startups and trendspotting into a career in philanthropy. She touches on the ethical and practical challenges facing philanthropy, the ways in which recognizing those challenges informs her own giving, and how her current role at the Effective Philanthropy Learning Initiative is helping her forward her own practice while also supporting other donors and their ecosystem of advisors.

Heather Lord leading a retreat in England on family legacy

Senior Fellow at the Effective Philanthropy Learning Initiative at Stanford PACS, Jump/Scale advisor, and Humanity in Action, Terreform ONE, and RNR Foundation board member Heather Newberry Lord’s journey into philanthropy — a world, she says, not unlike the Land of Oz — began in a serendipitous moment in the Reed College library. Lord’s story can both set the stage for better understanding her current work in the field and inspire others in their own work.

Heather and I spoke via Zoom, and this conversation has been edited for clarity.

How did you first get into philanthropy?

In my senior year at Reed College I applied for an international human rights fellowship after seeing a poster for it in the library. It was a transformative experience, and it also left me wondering: who is behind these life-changing programs? For a lot of people, my 20-year-old self included, philanthropy is not an immediately apparent layer of reality. I imagined philanthropists to be rather like the Wizard of Oz, pushing and pulling levers behind the green curtain, conjuring up programs that expand the human capacity for wonder, connection, exploration, and social justice. 

You spent much of the early chapter of your career in the corporate sector; what drew you into the philanthropic sector?

During the 90s dot com boom in New York I was a programmer and web producer, and couldn’t resist the lure of those early startups. Back then, raising venture funding from a 5-page pitch deck, making good money, and working from home in my flip flops with teams in Vegas, LA, and Russia was a novelty—and a wild ride. I worked on some interesting startups, but I was always drawn to nonprofit tech projects like the first online collective memory archive connecting the Kurdish diaspora, or designing platforms supporting US and Latin American digital artists. I also worked as a trendspotter for Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve for many years, which gave me an excuse to keep researching my questions about the forces driving human behavior. In this chapter of my career, I kept circling around the notion that emergent technologies, behavioral research, and philanthropy might somehow help human beings get better at being human. That said, I was also becoming increasingly aware of the fraught mess of ethical spaghetti rampant throughout tech, academia, and philanthropy.

“Fraught mess of ethical spaghetti” is quite a colorful phrase. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Anyone who has spent time examining the machinery of these sectors can see how often they fall short of their own purported goals to improve the human condition. When it comes to philanthropy, at its best I still believe it can be a profound opportunity to shift the possible future for a person, a community, or a cause. But philanthropy—at its worst—can be a reflection of those behind it, and of deeply inequitable social, geopolitical, and market forces. However well-meaning people may be, when the shadow side of colonialism and solutionism finds itself with a big charitable budget and an unchecked savior complex, things get difficult for people trying to do good things on the local level.

After a few years working for a private international foundation, I thought, “Maybe I should go to grad school to refine my understanding —and critiques— of the global philanthropic sector?” Professor Rob Reich introduced me to Stanford PACS and gave me sage advice on the problematic dynamics I should consider if I was going to push for more equitable practices in philanthropy. The questions I opened up in grad school are on my mind every single day in my work at Stanford. I wonder about the extent to which philanthropy can address cultural imperialism, structural racism, and deeply embedded inequities built into our institutions and operational practices. 

You’ve talked about your time in tech, academia, trendspotting, and working for other philanthropists. Can you tell us a little more about your own philanthropy?

Ever since that human rights fellowship experience right after college, I consistently volunteered for nonprofits I admired. People in the nonprofit sector often talk about the importance of giving not only treasure (i.e. financial gifts), but also time, talent, and ties (i.e. making useful connections for nonprofits to people in your social network). Early on I had time, talent, and ties, and I was always doing what I could to support great organizations and visionary leaders, but I certainly wasn’t the one writing big checks to an organization. Over time that ratio shifted, and when my grandmother passed away, my father and his siblings decided to start a spend down foundation. As an adult who had been working in the nonprofit sector for some time, I unexpectedly found myself a NextGen philanthropist. I wanted to be thoughtful and avoid at least some of the hubristic pitfalls I’d seen so much of, so I ramped up my own philanthropic education. I attended Council on Foundations convenings hosted by Resource Generation, and learned from organizations like Nexus Global Youth Network, Thousand Currents, and Solidaire. Of course I’ve also learned from our foundation’s incredible grantees across the country and strategic grantmaking partners like the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (one of the best community foundations in the world!). All families have their dynamics and internal politics, but ultimately, philanthropy has been a way for our family to find common cause across generational and political differences. We are first mover funders who love to support those untested initiatives most nonprofits leaders have somewhere on their wishlist. When I reflect on my core values and experiences in tech startups and philanthropy, I see many similarities, perils, and possibilities.

How does your role as a Senior Fellow at the Effective Philanthropy Learning Initiative forward your work as a “critical practitioner” of philanthropy?

At EPLI, I feel like I can wear my many hats of techie, startup founder, philanthropist, and academic all at once. I get to take the research we do on donor behavior and sector trends and get it into the hands of current and aspiring philanthropists and their network of advisors to elevate their philanthropic practice. Most people start out with reactive philanthropy – responding to requests coming at them from their schools, friends, or emergency aid. Giving to such causes is great, but our work at EPLI gives donors a chance to pause, become reflective with their philanthropy, and to ask the big questions like: How do you want to respond to your historical moment?

It’s rewarding to take the lessons I’ve learned and quandaries I’ve grappled with and share them with the various “communities of the curious and the critical” like First Principles Forum and others who look to Stanford PACS for guidance in elevating their philanthropic practice. People who have been very successful in their careers often think they already know how to give and can just use all the same tactics that made them succeed in the business world — but that’s not necessarily true. We try to encourage humble giving and a model of more equitable philanthropy in which donors think less about themselves and their own big ideas, and more about the needs, visions, and dreams of the organizations and communities they give to. At the end of the day, we strive to give people a sense of the spectrum of giving approaches; Effective philanthropy is, after all, just one part of a much larger, lively debate around philanthropy and social investment. 

Thank you so much for your time. Hopefully we can pick up on some of these threads in the future.

Thank YOU. It would be a pleasure!  I hope we all find ourselves back on campus together soon.