Advance Review of the Book “Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely Held World” by Dr. David Mathews

Jennifer Vanica | November 8, 2018

dr david matthews
A Word about Dr. David Mathews, President & CEO, Kettering Foundation

When I first read Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future, I knew I needed to seek out its author, Dr. David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation. He writes for people who care about their communities and want to create change by starting where they are and with what they have. “Democracy,” he notes, “is a political system that depends on learning,” and “with no acceptable authority on what we as a citizenry should do,” we have to figure it out.  To do that, we must build civic connections and engage in deliberative discussion and debate. 

As President of the Kettering Foundation, Dr. Mathews provides a worldwide platform for the study of democracy and what makes it work as it should.  Is it possible, even if we disagree, to solve shared problems? He believes it is. So do I. I find his work to galvanize citizens to step up and step forward and work together, inspiring. Every community-builder and philanthropist should read his work.

I had an opportunity to spend a day with Dr. Mathews discussing the intersection of philanthropy and democracy while I was writing Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely Held World — a book about addressing the power dynamics between foundations and the communities we seek to serve by shifting control over decisions through resident ownership of planning, implementation, and ultimately the assets developed. 

In the world of philanthropy, which largely works as a closed circle making decisions about what is in the public’s best interest, the “public voice” is more often than not missing. Dr. Mathews notes: “The public voice…is formed by the interaction of people as they attempt to solve common problems or decide on policies…It is the sound of people engaging one another, not simply the unconnected aggregation of individual expressions. It is the voice of democracy in its most basic form.”

By operating as a closed circle, there is a price that is paid in philanthropy for not practicing the inclusion we preach.

Here is what Dr. Mathews had to say about the book in an Advance Review.

courageous philanthropy

Advance Review of Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely Held World

“These are trying times, and conversations about the state of democracy and its problems reverberate everywhere—including within the philanthropic sector. Perhaps especially troubling is the sharpening of an age-old concern about the ability and willingness of people to take on the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. At the same time, many people have serious doubts about their own ability to make a real difference in our political system. They feel pushed out of their rightful place in democracy by a political elite, which they see as including the media.

Jennifer Vanica’s book Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely-Held World addresses some of these problems through the lens of her own experience leading the family foundation started by Joe and Vi Jacobs over the course of two decades. The book is framed around an effort to encourage and catalyze enduring change in southeastern San Diego. This challenge brought into focus the need to re-evaluate notions of expertise. What about the knowledge people create together as they share experiences and begin to imagine the future they want? Recognizing this kind of knowledge and the ways it is created goes against the professional instinct to bring best practices and scientific knowledge to bear on problems.

The challenge for philanthropy, Vanica suggests, has to do with how philanthropy sees the people it hopes to serve. Can it move beyond seeing them as clients and recipients to seeing them as producers of public goods, as agents of their own future?

This is not a neatly packaged how-to manual. What is compelling is that Vanica takes us on her journey and is candid about her own missteps. And she uses each misstep as an opportunity to reflect, drawing on a wide variety of experiences and ideas that influenced her thinking over time.

I had long been aware of her work, but it wasn’t until a recent meeting with a number of grantmakers that I recognized the greater potential of this book. In that meeting, we talked about the difference between the problems in a democratic society and the problems of a democracy itself, the systemic problems behind the problems that keep democracy from functioning as it should. Foundations do a good job of addressing problems in a democratic society, but at this meeting, they puzzled over what it would mean to work on fundamental problems that endanger democracy itself. This book helps open the door to that discussion.”

For More Information

For more information about the book Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely Held World and how to buy it, go to

For more information about Dr. David Mathews’ book Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future, go to

Get Involved

Keep In Touch

We would love to keep in touch and join the conversation. We know that change happens when leaders, community members, and stakeholders are involved. Join us to share work and stay connected.

%d bloggers like this: