In May, Perrin Family Foundation’s founder and Board Chair Sheila Perrin received the John H. Filer Award from the Connecticut Council on Philanthropy. Following her acceptance of the award, Sheila shared reflections and lessons learned about philanthropy’s role and approach in advancing social change.  Below, she shares “three simple but hard realities” that philanthropy must embrace.   

It has been an interesting and informative ride for me as a philanthropist in CT. I have met so many dedicated and compassionate people many of whom are here today. I have been educated, challenged, and humbled by smart and caring adults and young people who have given me hope for the future of our state and country.

The world has significantly changed in the past twenty-five years. New knowledge, new opportunities, new technology has been thrown at us at break neck speed. Unfortunately, there are many who have been left behind in this new world. The gap between rich and poor, particularly here in CT, is not something to be proud of.

My thinking has evolved over this time as I have watched non-profits struggle to keep up with societal needs. I have learned that the intractable social problems that have existed for so many years require a new approach for change. I have also faced three simple, but hard realities over the years, which I would like to share with you.

  1. As a philanthropist, I do not have all the answers. I am part of a not very diverse group of people with wealth and privilege who want to make the world a better place. I have often been blinded by this passion into thinking that I have the solutions to problems that on the surface seem so basic and correctable. It is easy and admirable to provide goods and services to those in need, but it is not so easy to understand why these needs exist. I have not had the lived experience of many on the receiving end of non-profit work. I have not walked in the shoes of a person of color. I have not grown up with the angry young man sitting in a detention center for a minor offense. I have not gone through a day with a single young mother trying to care for her two babies while holding down a job, putting food on the table, and arranging for child care. Despite my best intentions as a philanthropist, I cannot presume to know what it takes to impact these lives. The solutions to these challenges are deep and interwoven and require much thought and soul searching.
  2. As a philanthropist, I need to do less talking and much more listening. I, like many, have often succumbed to the bureaucracy of traditional grant making. Data, instead of testimony, evaluation around numbers rather than impact and demands that often take no account of the complexity of the work or the need to address the root causes of our social problems. I have learned the importance of working with and not for the members of communities that need assistance. I have learned the need to listen to their voices. I may think money should go to a new afterschool program, the community wants a stop sign at a street intersection so their children can walk safely to school. I may think that high school students need a new rec center, they want to have a school policy that informs them of their credit status before they get to graduation day. I may think the Dreamers need an office, they want to learn how to advocate for policy changes that allow them to attend college. I need to listen.
  3. As a philanthropist, I need to adapt to new realities. Traditional philanthropy no longer works. I need to understand the importance of creating systemic change to create equity in our communities. I need to understand the value of supporting the typically voiceless to have a voice, to support advocacy work for what is right and just in our society. I need to examine my own prejudice and bias and how it impacts my desire to make the world a better place.

As we move forward with our work at the Perrin Family Foundation we are trying to use these learnings in our work. We believe that young people grow and develop in uniquely powerful ways when they have opportunities to work in partnership with adults to create social change. We support their grassroots efforts by funding capacity building, providing educational workshops and safe environments for hard discussions. We encourage collaborations amongst our grantees and with other funders, recognizing that we all need to work together to create communities that are safer, healthier, and more just. We invite you to join us.

The dictionary definition of philanthropy is “altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement, usually manifested by donations of money, property, or work to needy persons”. I would suggest a new definition fit for the 21st century. Philanthropy is supporting environments that give voice to those who experience social inequities and empower them to make change in their lives.