Lessons in Collaboration from the Top of a Volcano

I climbed a volcano last week. Let’s face it, you’ve probably done something similar, considering most mountains are merely ex-volcanos, or were birthed through volcanic activity. So “climbing a volcano” is not necessarily a big deal.

Except this particular volcano was alive. Not Mt. St. Helens alive, mind you, but it was hard not to miss the consistent spout of sulfuric steam, or the sound of small stones returning to earth after a brief, albeit unsuccessful, experimentation with flight.

Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, three of which are active. One, Agua, dwarfs the city of Antigua at its base. Emerging from the hotel to stroll along the calle, it’s hard not to look up at Agua and think “haven’t these people ever heard of Pompeii?”

A Volcano of Another Kind

The World Heritage city of Antigua hosts an annual event that is simultaneously unique and exhausting. Called the Antigua Forum, it is a gathering of political leaders, entrepreneurs, and experts from around the world to work on projects that find real solutions to real problems. At each event, 50 participants from up to two dozen countries work in small groups, guided by trained facilitators, to help project owners come up with concrete action plans. As they advertise, “there are no lectures, just productive encounters.” Another way to think about it is that while world leaders gather at posh Davos, Switzerland to discuss the plight of the poor, a group of “lesser knowns” gather in lowly Guatemala to actually address the problem.

The forum succeeds because it combines dispersed and localized knowledge with genuine intellectual give and take. Project managers often leave with an entirely different business plan, but one with greater possibilities than what they previously envisioned. Others depart with the need to restart or reapply their original idea or focus. Thus is the benefit (and cost) of creative destruction.

Collaboration as a Necessity to Philanthropy

Collaboration is the powerful force that encourages philanthropic success. Given the decentralized nature of the U.S. non-profit community, collaboration is a necessity. CEOs understand the value of working with their peers where there is common interest; boards of directors can develop partnerships with other boards and create best practices; staff can reach across communities and states to find new partners and share results.

But collaboration among donors is not as common as it could or should be. Given the individualized nature of giving, this is not surprising. Each of us has specific motivations, interests, and experiences that guide our decision-making. We place a bet that thousands, perhaps millions of us, simultaneously pursuing myriad activities to address problems or meet needs, will generate the will-power and resources to succeed. It’s what the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Karl Zinsmeister calls a “polyarchy” – a society in which there are many different sources of power. Private philanthropy is one those vital sources of power, particularly in a democratic and decentralized political state such as the U.S. If it flourishes, society does too.

At the same time, we live in an information age where both the speed of information flowing at us, is as overwhelming as is the diversity of the information to us. Interested in supporting local literacy programs? Do an internet search and, suffice it to say, you will be presented with days and weeks of research. And that’s just in your metropolitan area. It’s not merely processing the information available to you for your giving, it’s about identifying those charities which succeed, or at a minimum attempt to identify their measurable impact.

Collaborative Philanthropy in Practice

What to do? Well, for one, collaborate. Ask others you know and trust about the organizations they already support. While it is true that your friends’ goals and interests may differ from yours, an outside perspective will open up doors of discovery. Also, attend events (you can read about the importance of events here). They at least put you in the room with folks who are committed to that organization and its goals. Better yet, volunteer with the organization so that you stand (or sit or kneel) shoulder to shoulder with those doing the heavy lifting. You may learn something. Sit down with the CEO and discuss his or her vision for what the challenges are and how the organization can adapt to them. Pose questions based on your experiences, even if that experience has nothing to do with the non-profit world.

And consider joining our community of collaborators. DonorsTrust is the community foundation for liberty. We are not focused on geography or even on a particular charitable cause. We are focused on helping our clients get bang for their buck, particularly with those organizations that value principles such as limited government or free enterprise, are willing to adapt to be successful, and recognize that appreciating individual personal responsibility does not mean operating in a vacuum.

Donors can often be the proverbial “pawns in the game of life” – mindlessly dispensing money because they feel good about it, but failing to be mindful of the effect of such giving patterns. Instead, become a reformer, a philanthropist who wants to change the status quo and disrupt or create something new. The key, however, is in collaboration. Find others who share your passion, work with groups that see value in learning from and teaching others how to achieve real results, and develop a set of principles from which your vision and hope can emerge.

Sometimes a simple spark ignites a volcano. The results can be spectacular.


  • Lawson Bader

    Since 2015, Lawson Bader serves as president and CEO of DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. Before coming to DonorsTrust, he amassed twenty years’ experience leading free-market research and advocacy groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He began his career in DC in as special assistant at the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, then worked as a legislative analyst/paralegal with Pierson, Semmes & Finley, and managed government relations at SRI International. He is a former weekly columnist with Human Events, and a current contributor to Kiplinger and member of the Forbes Nonprofit Council. He also serves on the governing boards of the Atlas Network, State Policy Network, and Oakseed Ministries International. Lawson earned a BA in political science from Wheaton College (IL) and an MA in public policy from The Johns Hopkins University.

    View all posts

Start Protecting Your Intent Today.

Are you interested in giving to nonprofits that align with your conservative or libertarian values? If so, consider opening a simple, secure, tax-advantaged giving account with DonorsTrust.