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The three-headed hydra of apathy, envy and fear has three words for philanthropy: tiny is terrific

When billionaires invest wisely in “big picture” systems change, three-headed hydras shudder

Three-headed hydras would prefer that philanthropists and all foundations think tiny, only funding small, short-term projects. Luckily, hydras (those power brokers who treasure the status quo) are not the bosses of all foundations and there’s nothing like a global pandemic and economic free fall to inspire big picture thinking among those big givers in the world of philanthropy.

A Billionaire’s Story: Fantasy or Reality?

Imagine if Jeff Bezos, the billionaire philanthropist and owner of Amazon (with $145 billion and change to kick around) wanted to invest his philanthropy in a COVID-19 Recovery Project with a focus on student health and achievement.

Now imagine he sits at his desk and thinks about the Bezos Family Foundation and its mission: Our vision is that all young people are prepared to achieve their full potential and make a meaningful contribution to society.

Somehow, amid his emails, he discovers a proposal for a groundbreaking initiative that promises to create learning environments where students have the best chance to succeed. He can see that this groundbreaking initiative provides a model for a data-driven strategy to vastly improve the health and education of students and families. It’s an innovative model that once funded, tested and evaluated, could be replicated in almost any city in the nation.

Bezos, a very smart businessman, understands all about the root causes of the challenges many students face. He knows that if we as a nation do not invest in resourced communities to ensure the health, safety and early education of children, older students won’t thrive. He knows that students don’t exist in a vacuum, and that to enrich the lives of students one must create local community systems to enrich the lives of student’s parents.

Investing in systems of empowerment

In my fantasy world, I can see a thoughtful Bezos thinking about investing a tiny percentage of his billions in a data-driven, cross-sector and tech-empowered initiative designed to ensure access to services for surviving and thriving. He’s intrigued with the plan that promises to set up ten pilot sites in ten counties in one state for only $20 million a year, a total of $100 million over five years. The goals of the proposal are clearly laid out with data and research informing the initiative’s hypothesis, inputs, activities, outputs, and short, intermediate and long-term measurable goals.

When Bezos calls his foundation director, he says, “Imagine if such a small investment could actually create a new countywide system of health, safety and resilience, and a plan for crisis preparedness, for all families. Just think how such a plan of action could support our mission to empower all students.”

Bezos goes to his foundation’s website and reads the mission: Bezos Family Foundation supports rigorous, inspired learning environments for young people, from birth through high school, to put their education into action. Through investments in research, public awareness and programs, the foundation works to elevate the field of education and improve life outcomes for all children.

Bezos stares at the words “birth through high school” and it becomes clear that his foundation’s mission will only be achieved by investing in a model that ensures, in addition to fully-resourced community schools, countywide systems of accessible medical care, mental health care, housing and food security programs and job training that is in alignment with future job markets.

Anything is possible with a vision

That imaginative scenario above may not be probable, but it’s not impossible. The point is that we must create well-conceived proposals to share our vision with foundation leaders. And, our “ask” of $20 million a year to reach the majority of a state’s population with an evidence-driven process of community capacity-building and crisis-readiness is, in the scheme of things, quite small. There are cities that spend more than that on keeping their parks tidy.

Each state has a network of independent, self-governing foundations with the resources to do big picture work. There is a movement, supported by technology, that is helping all foundations in a state work collectively to eradicate our most pressing health, safety and education challenges — through collaborative work. That’s a future we are looking forward to.

For many decades, foundations of all sizes have said they are working to improve the lives of children. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the US. This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations, including: chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.

So how can the foundation world empower states, city and counties, strengthening their capacity to confront and recover from a public health crisis and economic disruption? They can fund our/your proposals to do groundbreaking work designed to achieve measurable and meaningful results.

Have the proposal ready

It’s up to each of us to share our vision for a post-pandemic world where all us thrive. Toddlers. Students. Parents. Grandparents. Public sector. Private sector. Everyone. Everywhere. Go grab a cup of joe and start writing those proposals articulating bold plans for a future when 100% are empowered to succeed. Mr. Bezos or some philanthropist just like him is waiting.

The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.

Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Any questions? The mission awaits:

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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