What should training for a philanthropic generalist look like?

One of the challenges with philanthropy is that there’s no pipeline. While most people in the field have advanced degrees, they’re of many different kinds. Philanthropy isn’t a profession in the same way that law or medicine are, with prescribed forms of training and specific degrees you’re meant to get.

While many philanthropic professionals specialize in a particular topic like health or education, a good number are generalists, folks who learn a lot about a particular topic in a short period of time while keeping the perspective of a non-specialist that allows them to see beyond inside-baseball disputes about technical issues in a field. (At least that’s the hope.)

What kind of training should a philanthropic generalist receive? I’ve been thinking lately that it would be useful to have a kind of “reality tour” prior to getting started in this area, some real-life experience in a variety of areas that you’re likely to come across. A stint in the Peace Corps to get a direct sense of international development issues, a stint with Teach for America to understand the public-education system from the inside, time spent volunteering or working in a public-health clinic or a senior home, a season as a community organizer for an advocacy or political campaign…what if there were a way to have those kinds of experiences in a more practical timeframe (because what I’ve just described would take at least five years)? A semester each? Make it part of a degree program, embedded in the summers or as part of a practicum in one semester? Yes, work experience counts, but there must be a way to give philanthropic generalists a closer connection to the work they’re likely to come across….


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