At its best philanthropy works against injustice and aims to support and sustain systemic change in our society. Yet often it falls short of this goal because it has become yet another player in the system. When philanthropists neglect to question the status quo, they inadvertently support the power structure inherent in giving and receiving. We can’t promote justice using the same economic model that created the injustice, otherwise we’re effectively working to support the system we’re struggling against. This was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thought as well – that while philanthropy is admirable, “it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Without understanding how injustices were created and our role in their creation, we ask the wrong questions. When we ask “Why are so many families dependent on food banks?” we miss the opportunity to ask, “What are ideal ways of meeting a family’s basic needs?”
Most of us were taught that questions have right and wrong answers. In fact, we weren’t encouraged to formulate questions with no answers at all. Yet, questions without immediate answers are the ones that lead to innovation and creativity. They lead to movement and ownership. They create change. In Fran Peavy’s strategic questioning model she outlines the case for the strategic question and provides seven components to craft one.
“What would our world be like if every time we were listening to a gripe session, someone would ask, “I wonder what we can do to change that situation?” and then listened carefully for the answers to emerge and helped that group to begin to work for change? What would it be like for you to do that in your work, family or social context? Your attention and context might shift from a passive to an active one. You could become a creator, rather than a receiver, of solutions. This shift in perspective is one of the key things that people need in our world just now. And the skill of asking strategic questions is a powerful contribution to making such a shift.”
And shaping a strategic question is indeed a skill. It’s the most important part of understanding a problem. Einstein understood this when he stated, “If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend 55 minutes determining the right question to ask.” The right question is the basis of good design thinking – the kind of thinking that takes us to a new level of understanding. It’s the kind of thinking that allows us to suspend our judgments and consider alternatives. It pushes us to examine our role in the injustice we’re trying to solve. Good questions tap into our curiosity, get to the root of something, create bridges to other ideas and people, and ultimately pull back the curtain of our status quo. These types of questions are the basis of informed philanthropy, and they tend to make people uncomfortable. It’s important to ask anyway.