What is a philanthropic laboratory?

While George Washington is credited as the first to say it, many have embraced the idea of the United States as “The Great Experiment.” In a letter dated in 1790, Washington expresses that the establishment of the new American government seemed to be “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil society.” Over two centuries later, on January 20, 2021, newly inaugurated Vice President Kamala Harris said: “A great experiment takes great determination. The will to do the work, and then the wisdom to keep refining, keep tinkering, keep perfecting.”

This culture of experimentation, innovation, and active participation is part of the American ethos. It is both part of who we are and how we operate. Somehow, thinking of America as a great experiment simultaneously makes it feel like a noun and a verb, which, in turn, transforms reflections into a call to action — a call to action that has endured through centuries.

This spirit of coupling reflection and action is what guided PACE to evolve its work to become a philanthropic laboratory in 2020. Our mission statement reads: PACE is a philanthropic laboratory for funders seeking to maximize their individual and collective impact on democracy and civic life in America. The PACE community achieves this through learning, experimenting, collaborating, and modeling vibrant civic life. We announced this mission and strategic plan in January 2020 and the myriad of events since then have made it even clearer that the times we live in require that we learn, innovate, and experiment.

Admittedly, fully embodying a philanthropic laboratory identity is an experiment in itself, as there are not many blueprints or models for this type of orientation or approach. PACE has always been about learning, but we wanted this new mission to push us to make sure that learning is both participatory and actionable. So after a year of exploration, we reflected on the value and design of a philanthropic laboratory, and how we will move into action moving forward.

The value of a philanthropic laboratory

  1. Philanthropy — especially related to civic life and democracy — needs a space for R&D. As a membership organization of foundations and funders, PACE works to serve its members in their greatest needs related to strengthening civic engagement and democracy. Often, this means making things knowable that they might not know or find on their own. Sometimes that means learning from experts who are not already on their radars. Sometimes that means shaping conversations that stretch our membership community beyond their current focus or interest areas. Sometimes that means identifying assumptions or testing hypotheses as a group. A philanthropic laboratory enables all of these activities and makes it possible for funders to step outside their comfort zone and current work to try new things on for size. In many ways, it’s a form of research and development. Given that civic philanthropy is still an evolving focus within the larger field of philanthropy and that current events make a clear case for increased investment as well as nimbleness, having a space for philanthropy to do this kind of R&D is critical.
  2. Relatedly, funders benefit from cover in their R&D process. While it’s important that this kind of space exists, how it is used it is equally important. We observe that some funders — for a variety of strategic, political, and sometimes mechanical reasons — need a way to test out new areas before they can commit significant political, financial, or reputational capital to them. For example, in response to current events, we noticed an uptick in philanthropic groups interested in learning about how they could support democracy or civic engagement efforts, but they needed an in-road for sense-making, processing, and figuring out what actions might be right for them. A philanthropic laboratory offers funders the ability to try new things they might not be able to otherwise — either because they don’t operate in the space yet or because they want to experiment with new modalities before committing to them publicly.
  3. Funders are looking for ways to leverage their resources, insights, and perspectives. We hear sentiments from funders and foundations like “I want to make an investment in X strategy, but how could my investment encourage others to invest as well? Could we pool more funds for this work than I could give on my own?” As a philanthropic laboratory focuses on experimentation and testing, it can serve as a vehicle to do things and uncover new insights together that one group could not do on its own. It also creates a space for experimentation across funders not often found in traditional peer cohorts based on type or endowment size. We call this embracing the power of the collective. Similarly, a philanthropic laboratory provides a way for groups to support efforts and initiatives they want to see in the world without having to dedicate the comparable in-house capacity to take it on themselves.

The design of a philanthropic laboratory

What has changed, however, is what we do with our learning. We wanted to enable a culture that shifted from saying “That was interesting and gave me a lot to think about” to “That was interesting and gave me an idea of how to move forward with my work differently.” We still believe learning and fellowship are important, but we wanted to do more than have smart and thoughtful conversations with good people. We wanted to do more to have Members make the learnings actionable based on what they learned and who they learned with at PACE. We also wanted to do more to share those learnings with the larger field of philanthropy to shape and contribute to efforts beyond our community.

After a full (and eventful) year operating in this new way, we have deepened our understanding of a philanthropic laboratory as a collective space for philanthropy where learning is participatory and actionable.

By participatory, we mean:

  • PACE is member-centric; it pulls from its members and engages them in the process of learning and experimentation.
  • PACE acknowledges there is a role for observation, but it encourages active participation.
  • PACE Members believe in the power of the collective; they expect to collaborate and benefit from collaboration.
  • PACE aims to uncover the gaps in our understanding by seeking participation “outside the bubble.”

By actionable, we mean:

  • PACE directs its learning (and analysis of learning) towards action; we avoid putting learning “on a shelf.”
  • PACE understands that action can take a variety of forms and seeks to provide guidance across a range of possibilities.
  • PACE fosters a process of peer learning, which increases the chances for action and momentum to emerge.
  • PACE and its members model to the field of philanthropy what vibrant civic space can look like and inspire others to learn from and engage with them.

Equally important to our process of defining a philanthropic laboratory is defining what is not:

  • A philanthropic laboratory does not aim for certainty or “right answers.” Rather, it recognizes that many of the issues it engages are complex with many ways to look at an issue.
  • A philanthropic laboratory does not set out to prove best practices or reinforce the status quo. Rather, it sets out to uncover something novel and contribute to an evolution from the status quo.
  • A philanthropic laboratory does not seek to be authoritative or prescriptive. Rather, it seeks to offer information and insights for consideration.
  • A philanthropic laboratory is not exclusively empirical. Rather, it understands that many of the issues it engages exist beyond what can be captured by data and algorithms and often relies on human truth and experience as well as questions of values.
  • A philanthropic laboratory is not about emphasizing an individual’s contributions. Rather, it is about a collective, communal, and participatory process of learning together.

In the future, when we are asked “What does it mean to be a philanthropic laboratory?” we will send along these reflections with acknowledgement that this is all a work in progress. At the end of our first year as a philanthropic laboratory, we are settling into this identity. In many ways, this identity is really about a subtle — but profound — shift in intentionality towards learning with a purpose. And this could not have come at a better time. Many have called the challenges we face today “unprecedented.” While that might be true, our country has certainly faced challenges of this magnitude in its 244-year journey of experimentation. It is when individuals and groups participate and take action — or as Vice President Harris urged: refine, tinker, and perfect — that the experiment continues and evolves.

Want to learn more about what our philanthropic laboratory is doing this year? Check out www.PACEFunders.org.

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a…

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

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A network of foundations and funders committed to civic engagement and democratic practice. Visit our publication at: medium.com/office-of-citizen

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.

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