Philanthropy frequently justifies its independence by invoking capacities it seldom displays. Philanthropy, we are told, is the vaunted passing gear. “Social action is usually a slow process,” wrote Paul Ylvisaker, who championed the poor through his long career in government, philanthropy, and the academy. “Foundations by stepping in can speed up the process, acting as ‘society’s passing gear.’” But where Ylvisaker saw potential for grantmakers to be catalysts and agents for change, we too often today see foundation leaders who prefer to be neutral conveners.

In 2011, dozens of prominent philanthropic CEOs left their organizations or announced their departures, including Paul Brest, Greg Chaillé, Steve Gunderson, Feather Houstoun, Gara LaMarche, Lance Lindblom, Margaret McKenna, Aryeh Neier, Gary Yates, and others. These high-profile exits have me considering what we need from CEOs of our nation’s grantmaking institutions. 

These times demand philanthropic leaders who can shift their organizations—and philanthropy—out of neutral. We have to be fair and honest with each other even if we disagree. But we cannot be neutral in the face of staggering inequality, decreasing opportunities, low social mobility and the steady destruction of our natural environment—especially knowing there are powerful interests that are organized and resourced to keep things that way. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Philanthropy needs leaders firmly on the side of those with the least wealth, opportunity, and power: leaders with a burning hunger for justice, humility, and, most of all, courage. If our sector gains more CEOs with these qualities, it will more likely become Ylvisaker’s hoped-for passing gear.

We need leaders who are impatient with incremental change and who can instill a shared sense of urgency in others. We too often set aside conversations about philanthropy’s ends. What should we as a field contribute to society? For what and for whom do we stand? We opt instead for the lighter fare of philanthropy’s means. We do this to avoid uncomfortable disagreements and to accommodate the wide variety of goals and forms philanthropy takes. There is a difference, though, between delaying a conversation and tabling it indefinitely. We need leaders who can articulate clearly what philanthropy ought to do for those among us who need the most.

Recently, some have suggested that grantmakers scale back their ambitions and practice humbler philanthropy. That certainly should not mean humility of goals. Given the challenges currently facing our nation and the world, we need CEOs who are humble enough to support the greatest aspirations of true community-led organizations, instead of foisting foundation-designed grand plans on grantees. Humble grantmakers ask: do our funding practices acknowledge the expertise and wisdom of others, particularly grantees? Do we include the experience of those with the least wealth, opportunity, and power in our thinking? Are our fates bound up with those we hope to benefit from our philanthropy?

Philanthropy in general still balks at substantial funding for high-impact strategies such as advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement. Even foundations that do fund those strategies often provide measured support of large, established, top-down efforts. Half-measures are proffered as thoughtful, realistic strategy. Lack of courage contributes greatly to this problem. “Courage isn’t the absence of fear,” writer Ambrose Redmoon tells us, “but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” We need CEOs in our sector who can courageously put the communities they serve first and take real risks, while boldly funding and empowering those who have historically been kept on society’s margins.

As boomers change jobs or retire, we can expect more transition at foundations and associations, large and small. The hiring choices that boards make will reverberate for a generation or more. The public seeks—and has a right to expect—the best from our nation’s grantmakers. Who will shift us out of neutral and into the passing gear?