What a Lasting Marriage and Good Philanthropy Have in Common

By Mike Wang
|
12 / 08 / 23

This holiday season my wife and I are celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary. Ever the philosopher, my 13-year-old son asked me, “How is that possible, dad, I can’t imagine doing anything for 15 years!?” It’s not often your teenager gives you an opportunity to share a life lesson, and so, while I have many friends, family, and colleagues who have been in relationships much longer than 15 years, I jumped at the chance to offer my two cents. 

As I shared my reflections with him on what’s made our marriage work through both good times and more difficult ones, I realized that, crazy as it sounds, marriage has a lot in common with what keeps so many of my clients engaged in their giving year in and year out, even in the face of challenges. In particular, three lessons stood out… 

Lesson 1: Never stop getting to know your partner… or the problems you hope to impact in the world. 

A comedian once quipped that you don’t really know your wife until you’ve been married three years… up until then you’ve only met their talent rep. I think in strong marriages, you strive to continually get to know your partner, no matter how long you’ve been together. People change. And more importantly, our understanding of other people changes. 

Similarly, effective philanthropists work to continually deepen their understanding of the issues and the communities they are hoping to impact. Being open-minded, embracing curiosity, and building authentic relationships with the people affected by their philanthropy helps donors to grow their understanding over time. And, as a donor’s understanding of the underlying problems evolve, so too will their understanding of and commitment to the solutions needed to address those problems. 

Lesson 2: Learn from your mistakes and have grace for those who also make them. 

If “to err is human” then to err constantly is to be married. Best intentions notwithstanding, we humans are constantly making mistakes in the relationships that are most important to us.  Good marriages aren’t about hiding from or making excuses for those mistakes, they are about recognizing and learning from them– and, about extending grace to our partners who are no more perfect than we. 

The ability to make and then weather mistakes is a crucial ingredient to philanthropy built to last. As my colleague, Caitlin Hannon writes, “the field of philanthropy needs a radical cultural shift around talking about failure.” Philanthropists who are willing to get it wrong, learn from their mistakes, and extend grace to those on the front lines struggling to affect change tend to be far more satisfied and inspired than their peers over the long haul.  

Lesson 3: Above all, make time for connection, not just accomplishment. 

For a marriage to thrive requires finding joy in connection outside of major accomplishments. My wife, Anne, and I are incredibly lucky to have been able to buy a home, save for retirement together, experience the births of our three children, and more.  But shopping for vegetables on a random Tuesday night at the grocery store is how we — and most married couples — spend the vast majority of our lives. In strong marriages, partners can cultivate connection in the mundane, not just in the checking off of measurable goals. 

Similarly, philanthropists who stay invested in the work find real joy in their giving, not just through their impact, but also through the connection they feel to the issues and to the communities they aim to impact. Too many of my colleagues in philanthropy advising are focused exclusively on measurable impact without acknowledging the value of connection. This is shortsighted. To be clear, impact matters; but philanthropy is a very personal extension of one’s values; making one’s giving meaningful is essential to sustaining that giving over time. 

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I’m really looking forward to celebrating the traditions that Anne and I have created, the family we’ve built, and the joy we’ve experienced together over the last fifteen years. But, I’m even more excited and energized to think about the next 15 years. 

The challenges that today’s most effective philanthropists are working to solve are hundreds of years in the making. To stand a fighting chance at real impact will require patient, long-term capital. As the year comes to a close, the  question I’ll pose to my clients is: what will it take for you to feel curious, open, and connected in your giving over the next 15 years?

From every one of us at Building Impact Partners, may you and your loved ones find health and happiness this holiday season. Here’s to great things together in 2024!

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