Building a Culture of Curiosity: Our Roles in the Philanthropic Education Community

by Sally Schuster, MPA Candidate, Columbia University SIPA

For a little over four years, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the Ford Foundation office in Bogotá, Colombia, as an Executive and Program Assistant. My role required me to wear ‘many hats’, going between the programmatic and the operational tasks of a very small yet potent office. One day could start with a meeting with the leadership team of Colombia’s national Indigenous organization, then move on to an internal learning session about the work our Indonesian office was leading, and end with meeting a team who traveled overseas to discuss how to figure out food restrictions. Safe to say, there was never a slow day, nor was there a dull moment.

What I learned from my time at Ford is only comparable to the kind of in-depth immersion you get from a Master’s program. The type of people I would meet with, the number of internal and external events, and the books and resources made available in the philanthropic community were bar none. Leaving the Ford Foundation in August of 2022 to pursue my Master’s Degree in Development Practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. Especially because the world of philanthropy, which is in many ways complex, felt close to magical to me. The superstars I admired were closer to the Muhammad Yunus of the world, (who I happened to see roaming the halls of Ford’s New York office once), and less like the actual rock stars of the music world.

And yet, here I am; a year and a few months into my program, still reflecting on how philanthropic practices work and how they could potentially improve the lives of millions. If there is one key message that I carry with me after these months, it is that philanthropic dollars are very limited to solve the needs of too many. How we invest in programming matters greatly, and strategizing around organizations’ missions is fundamental to our work and to make our resources all the more lasting and impactful.

The best way to transform philanthropic practices, I’ve always believed, stems from education: it is about the way we constantly improve our knowledge and how we stay ever-so curious. This is just a fancy way of saying: we need to read more and consume information like we are kids at a candy store. I don’t necessarily mean reading philanthropic blog posts (though they help; and let me just say, thanks for reading mine). But by always challenging our own beliefs about the ‘right way’ of doing things. I spent a lot of my time at Ford trying to read and learn as much as possible about philanthropy and some of the best material I got was through books.It helped that we had a budget to purchase them, but even if that had not been the case, there are so many great resources available on and offline. 

Some of my best reads discussed the idea behind systems change and how philanthropy and other social endeavors need to look at systems as a whole, instead of just short-term solutions. These books included: Clayton M. Christensen’s “The Prosperity Paradox” (Harper Collins, 2019); Edgar Villanueva’s “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance” (Berret-Koehler, 2018); Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey’s “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control” (N/A, 2021); Naomi Ortiz’s “Sustaining Spirit: Self Care for Social Justice” (N/A, 2018), Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms “New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World--and How to Make It Work for You” (N/A, 2018) and David Schizer’s “How to Save the World in Six (Not So Easy) Steps” (Barnes and Noble, 2023).

I don’t think books will necessarily give us all the answers. But it is a great first step in the right direction. The more we build out this culture of curiosity and enhance our skills in the philanthropic education community, the better prepared we will be to question our own practices; to learn what has been done elsewhere and whether it has worked; to understand why context matters so much and how humility brings out the best in us as a community. 

I hope this short list of books nudges a few to think about why it's important to have a comprehensive perspective and start realizing the interconnectedness and intersectionality of the issues that philanthropy is trying to address.

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Sally Schuster is a Graduate Student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs where she is pursuing her Master’s in Public Administration focusing on Development Practices. Before SIPA she worked for over four years at the Ford Foundation’s Andean Region office based in Bogota. She has a B.A. in International Relations, a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in State, Public Policies and Development. Sally currently resides in New York City.