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From one Cornhusker to another: Peter Buffett, philanthropy, and how we can frame the dialogue

Dear Mr. Buffett,

The charitable industrial-complex, philanthropic colonialism, conscience laundering and inequality – these are topics a fellow Nebraskan like me wants to have more conversations about. So that’s why I was glad to read your New York Times op-ed this weekend, the reaction it garnered, and Wayan Vota’s call to you, “Time for a Moonshot.” The ensuing dialogue on Wayan’s page, including your participation, has been rich and engaging and much more useful to us in the social change business than some of the other responses to your piece from such folks as Howard Husock (can we say 19th century notions of philanthropy?), Ruth McCambridge, Phil Buchanan, or the guys at Philanthrocapitalism.

Since I left Nebraska at age 21, when I describe my childhood to my fellow US citizens, I’ve been met with reactions such as, “I can’t even imagine that,” or “It’s like you grew up in the 50s.” I’ve lived on the East and West coasts, as well as in southern Africa. And though I left Nebraska for its limitations, the older I get, the more grateful I am for that solid foundation it provided. That solid foundation as I see it now is a very deep sense of the “common good.” It permeated my upbringing and when I get discouraged about the state of world (which is easy to do – I live in Washington DC now), my hope comes from the notion that when I left my small town in Nebraska to be an aid worker, I found this: the common good still exists elsewhere in the world. In fact, now more than ever, it is the necessary, though neglected counter balance to economic growth, and to the conversations about “innovation” and “going to scale” in philanthropy that are a direct result of such ways of thinking. I believe a renewed focus on the “common good” will be the fuel to make the fundamental changes that those in the dialogue over on Wayan’s page is calling for.

nebraska-the-cornhusker-stateThose of us pushing the NGO/nonprofit sector all want to understand how to help people and organizations bypass as Wayan writes, “safe decisions [that] beget the status quo” and make “big bets on emergent leaders.” I shared my idea to help shift the roles of the well-intentioned, smart aid workers from purveyors of knowledge to investors in potential in the Guardian UK earlier this year. Alternative support mechanisms to seemingly “invisible” local leaders and initiatives, like the micro investment funds I suggest, are more possible than ever before. In fact, there is a growing number of small NGOs and foundations that specialize in offering direct funding to grassroots leadership and small, often “informal” movements.

I am currently working with a group of these international small grantmakers to collectivize their expertise and wisdom. They are adept at learning to keep their minds, and perhaps more importantly their hearts, open to the possibility of results that build upon and unleash the common good in unimagined and unanticipated ways. And when compared with “old-school” donor-controlled, large-scale, project-based international aid funding, small grants mechanisms can exhibit a profound shift in attitude and practice in working with impoverished and marginalized communities – from being passive recipients to active leaders of their own development. For example, as powerful actors that find and reach marginalized girls, grassroots organizations are key to unlocking girls’ potential, which I know is of interest to the NoVo Foundation.

Shifts in the cognitive frameworks with which we talk about international assistance are occurring. The common good must also enter into the conversation. And as the role of grassroots initiatives as key drivers of social change enters the discourse in a more profound and imperative way, international small grantmakers’ experience are an untapped resource that has increasing relevance for the international aid and philanthropic sectors as a whole.

It’s time for those with big pots to share to figure out how to get more resources to more people on the ground, so that they can increase their resourcefulness and responsiveness to their neighbors’ needs. As we both learned growing up in Nebraska, it’s what the common good requires of us and what the common good inspires in us.


Jennifer Lentfer,

(P.S. Turns out my Bolivian friend’s uncle lives next door to your dad in Omaha. I love this small world in which we live.)

arrow2 Responses

  1. Riona
    1 day, 3 hrs ago

    Did you get a response? :)

  2. 32 mins ago

    My California hippy upbringing also laid a strong foundation for caring for the “common good” and my participation in liberal Christian churches today builds on that foundation. I am grateful for both.

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