Stewardship is the Open Hand, not the Closed Fist (Beatty’s Maxim #4)

About ten years ago, Kent Whitworth, director of the Kentucky Historical
Society, shared this phrase with me that in many ways sums up a key principle of my own work in the history endeavor.

“Stewardship is the open hand, not the closed fist.”

(For the purposes of this post, I’ll be using the term stewardship as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” In this case, the history that we care for on a daily basis.)

The phrase — “Stewardship is the open hand, not the closed fist” — has multiple meanings in multiple contexts. But as it pertains to our work in public history, it is a reminder of the obligation of history organizations to keep in mind who we are doing this work for rather than who we are doing this work to.

It’s a simple statement in that it’s easy to remember. But like most simple mantras with value, there is a lot of meaning packed within.

The biggest takeaway I had when I first heard it was that I have to remember that I’m in this together with stakeholders, constituencies, and my community. I cannot mandate from on high.

The open hand is asking, “What is it that we can do that benefits you?” The closed fist is more like, “I’ll tell you what you need that we can provide.” (Sometimes the latter statement also adds the word “only” to the equation.)

It seems so simple an equation, and it really is. But it is so, so important to our work.

I think we’re better at doing this than we’ve ever been before, but we have to continue to strive to improve how we do it. We have to improve not only our approach but also the language we use. One example my colleague Rebecca Shrum pointed out to me just recently was the use of the phrase “sharing authority” versus “shared authority.”

Regarding stewardship, the former connotes more of the “closed fist” ideal. Thinking of it from the community’s standpoint, why are we the ones who have the authority in the first place? Did they give it to us? Did we insist on it? Do they agree we have it?

Using “shared authority” means that we are treating the work/relationship as one that mutually benefits each of us.

Think about it in terms of philanthropy for just a minute.

We’ve all lamented the turn to restrictive programmatic funding and/or funding that is tied so closely to specific donor interests that we struggle to make the case to them. (Here’s a great tongue-in-cheek commentary on that very thing from the always excellent Nonprofit AF blog.)

What if more funders were like the Ford Foundation, led by Darren Walker, that has diverted $1 billion (with a “b”) of its $12.5 billion endowment (8% of its total value) to “mission-related investments that generate both financial and social returns.” In doing so, Ford has also begun making more grants for general operating support, and allowing up to 20% for indirect costs. As Ben Paynter wrote, “Together, that may tackle another issue: In general, the group found, it was making short-term grants of often a year or two, which–especially for organizations without money in the bank–didn’t provide the security to take risks or grow.”

We know this to be true, we’ve all lived it. So how does this pertain to “Stewardship is the open hand.” What does this ideal look like for the philanthropic community? The Ford Foundation again provides a model.

Listening to and learning from grantees, Darren Walker writes:

is essential for us to enhance our impact. And it’s high time for us to hear and heed our own advice, and to actively reorient ourselves and our organizations around these two goals. We can’t simply invest in our partners’ projects; we have to invest in our partners themselves.
Doing so will require setting aside our pride and closely collaborating with our partners to make sure we help them do their best work. We need to be attentive to their needs, and to become more comfortable offering creative, flexible solutions. We also need to be patient, commit to more long-term assistance, and remove the pressure of having to deliver results measurable in two- or three-year time frames. Only then will we demonstrate the trust we have in our partners and be able to amplify their impact.
(Read on for more great posts from Walker about this very ideal.)

This, my friends, is what the “open hand” looks like in terms of philanthropy. My challenge to you is to consider it looks like as you engage with your own community? How can you exemplify a willingness to join alongside your stakeholders in mission-related activities that help meet their needs/wishes/desires, rather than just satisfy your own agenda?

I hope you’ll keep in mind maxim #4 as you engage in your work, “Stewardship is the open hand, not the closed fist.” It’s a simple, but powerful phrase about the real meaning of why we’re engaged in this work.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction. Join our mailing list.