For Philanthropy, Make No Little Plans And Take Bold, Small Actions

Ferris wheel with the sky.
Ferris wheel with the sky.

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood" - Daniel Burnham

I'm currently reading Devil in the White City, a historical non-fiction novel on the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Famous architect Daniel Burnham is the driving force behind the planning and construction of the awe-inspiring buildings and fair where the ferris wheel, shredded wheat and juicy fruit all made their first appearances - just a few of many inventions coming out of the event.

In learning more about the fair, I am constantly amazed by the magnitude of the project and inspired by the actions of the men and women who made it possible. The visionaries behind the 'Midway'. The 10,000 people just working on the beautification of the grounds. Those who collected tons and tons of steel to create the giant ferris wheel.

I felt something similar as I recently attended Blackbaud's annual philanthropy conference, called BBCON. Now I'm not saying one of the greatest events the world has ever seen is just like a technology company's conference in Austin, but after attending I felt both amazed by the magnitude of the philanthropic sector at this moment but also incredibly inspired by the ability of our actions to make change possible.

The Magnitude of Philanthropy Right Now

There's something special about philanthropy conferences - especially big ones - where you have thousands of people coming together all working to see some sort of change happen in our world. It's not change for change's sake however, it's fundamentally about helping people. Individuals.

And there's something extra special about these gatherings right now. There's a certain unease. And it's great.

There is this confluence of technology at our disposal, the rise of Millennials and Generation Z (pronounced 'zed' for you non-Canadians) and an impending transference of wealth from generation to generation like we've never seen. It all makes for a daunting, exciting, scary, interesting, nervous and energizing time.

Just think: more people who care more will have more information and resources at their disposal and command more market share than ever before.

Derrick Feldmann talked about how Millennials - the aforementioned 'more people who care more' - view their time, money and influence as equal assets to be used to benefit causes they are passionate about. How will organizations find ways to engage people, better, beyond giving?

Dr. Una Osili from IUPUI School of Philanthropy shared some brand new research looking at gender and giving and found that women are more likely to give and give more than their male counterparts. Not only that but they are playing a larger role in how households determine how much to give and who to support. How are organizations focusing on women and households when it comes to giving?

And Ted Hart discussed the rapid growth of donor advised funds, up to $19.66 billion, with a "b", in 2014 and what impact that has on giving. How do organizations work with donors and their DAF's?

And while the shifts facing the sector with Millennials, women and DAF's may be new, some things never change. The lack of investment - particularly in technology for example. Amy Sample Ward from NTEN noted that, on average, organizations are spending just 4% of their entire budgets on 'technology'.

And with such little investment in key areas like technology, how can organizations be 'keep up' with the times, for-profit counterparts and compete for consumer dollars?

I think that in the face of these big issues, hope can be found in the small solutions...

Inspired by The Power of Small Actions

In Devil in the White City, the vision of Burnham and others is truly immense. Huge. But it's the day-to-day actions of hundreds of thousands of men and women over the course of multiple years that actually allow for the exposition to even get off the ground.

And as much as the magnitude of change and opportunity facing the philanthropic sector was impressive, and daunting, it was the personal stories and focus on bold, small actions we all can take that most hit home for me.

I was moved to tears, multiple times, from keynote Nicholas Kristof who contrasted stats from significant issues like teen pregnancy and deworming and de-mining in developing countries with personal stories. These stories focused on the seemingly small actions of individuals that had a huge impact.

I was so moved at one story in particular, I recounted the story in a post on my own site (original post here):

Kristof told the story of a young man growing up in Alabama in the 1950's who, embarrassed to read in public for fear of his image among other issues, stole a book that looked interesting from the library and read it in secret. He liked the book so much that he stole another book from the same author. And then another. And as he read, and stole, more books he discovered a new part of him. Something had been awakened. His love of reading and thirst for knowledge took his life down another path, out of a tough upbringing in a segregated society all the way to the Judge's bench in the state of Alabama.

But that wasn't the story - as amazing and inspiring as it was. The story was really about Mrs. Grady. She was the librarian at his school who, he would later find out, knew he stole those books. And not only did she know and turn a blind eye, but, motivated by seeing this boy show a new interest, would drive to Memphis, miles away, and buy more books from the same author. She would use money, out of her own pocket, and often had to visit two or three bookstores, on her own time, until she could find the books she thought this boy would keep reading.

Small, bold acts.

He closed with another story about a simple act of kindness from an American family that helped bring an Armenian refugee to the United States to start a new life. That refugee was Nicholas' father.

The closing keynote, Ashley Judd, also talked very personally about her experiences. Her story is quite astounding but she focused not on movies, influence and power but about forgiveness, reconciliation and doing what one can - whoever they are. She talked about how she took 'radical responsibility' to make amends for things done to and around her and use that experience to be a force for good in the world.

For a conference filled with seemingly hundreds of new product launches and updates, dozens of top class speakers and innumerable stats and data points, it was personal stories from keynotes and people in their lives that will stick with me as the products, speakers and stats continue to change.


The World's Columbian Exposition wasn't as much about a fair but an emerging city, and country, fighting for the respect of the world in times of change. Similarly, BBCON for me was less about a technology conference but the current changes afoot that will affect the philanthropic sector in 2016 and years to come.

But in each example - the World's Columbian Exposition and BBCON - it's the actions of people that dictated, or will dictate, what these shifts will meant to the city and fair or to our sector and world.

Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood. Take bold, small actions; they have the power to change our world.

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