(The following post was authored by Amber Knox and originally published on the Philanthropy Northwest blog on March 29, 2016)

What is your foundation’s most ambitious goal, and how can you motivate others to aim as high or higher? Are you willing to invest social and reputational capital to solve critical problems — and will you accept the messiness of that process?

As grantmakers, it’s easy to view us (and even to view ourselves) as a checkbook, reacting to the crises of the day. But will that mindset effect the systemic changes needed to create lasting social reform? At Campion Foundation and Campion Advocacy Fund, our answer is an emphatic “no!” For too long, traditional philanthropy has written checks and relegated the responsibility for devising and implementing solutions to the nonprofit sector. That leaves too much leverage on the table, and too many big problems unsolved. Now philanthropists are moving beyond making grants, in search of additional strategies to advance our overall goals and mission. We deploy every tool we have available to create real and measurable good in the world.

At Campion, we employ “catalytic philanthropy,” defined as a donor’s ambition to change the world, matched by the courage to accept the responsibility for doing it. In the words of Tom and Sonya Campion, this means throwing everything we have at the problems we confront in pursuit of our goals. We are deploying our philanthropy, our political advocacy, our personal leadership, visionary nonprofit partners, multimedia investments like books and films, and the skills and creativity of everyone on staff to make an impact.

A confession: A few weeks ago, I would have struggled to articulate this definition. I have worked in philanthropy for nearly a decade, interacting with a range of thought leaders, instigators and champions for social change. Supporting and representing my various employers, I have always done my best to model best practices, share learning and promote advancement of the sector. But until very recently, I have never been challenged to publicly express my own take on why I believe that philanthropy is about more than giving away money.

When my colleagues at Philanthropy Northwest asked if I would lead a segment of Philanthropy Institute: Skills for Emerging Practitioners, my initial reaction was, “Why ME?” I had never even taken the class (though not for lack of interest), and here I was being asked to teach it! What were they thinking?

But then I took a deeper look at the material in question:

Maximizing Impact
  • Elevating a single foundation’s relatively minor resources.
  • Recognizing that complex problems require systemic solutions.
  • Holding the intention to learn from, develop and disseminate insight gained from philanthropy’s unique position.

Here was the base upon which I’ve built my career, and the values I hold dear. At Campion, we hold this as the core concept in our work to protect wilderness and end homelessness, regarding grantmaking of only one of six strategies that we apply to catalyze change. Surely I could find something to say to a group of 20 people about that.

So I did. And in leading that conference room filled with emerging practitioners from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington through the material, I found a new resonance with these deceptively simple concepts that I’ve been using all this time. My personal passion is for protecting the natural environment while maintaining vibrant human endeavor through building a more equitable and sustainable society. Investing my time and reputation in sharing that with others who are newer to the field, I reinforced and focused that passion and commitment for myself.

Teaching really is the best education. I look forward to more opportunities to explore moving beyond the grant with Philanthropy Northwest’s network, both as a facilitator and a peer.