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It’s the Soil, not just the Trees

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A few weeks ago, I went on my annual end-of-summer camping weekend (I’m not exactly a big camping fan) with my 10-year old, Sam, at Millersylvania State Park. As we laid in our two-person tent, side by side, late one night, we looked up through the mesh roof of our tent.

It was a clear, crisp evening with a full moon. The stars were brilliant, but the real “stars” that night and the whole weekend were the hundreds of huge, tall, majestic pines that surrounded us, watching over us wherever we hiked. They’re incredible, the pillars of the forest that have watched the first settlers come in their wagons and my son and me drive out in our Prius.

As we drove away at the end of the weekend, I took one last look upward to savor the sight. But as I walked back to the car, over the pine needles and fallen branches, I realized how beautiful – rich, soft, fertile – the soil under my feet was. We all look up and rave about the superstars of the forest, but how often do we celebrate the foundation of their beauty, that soil underfoot?

Without the rich dirt and nutrients those trees don’t have a chance. There’s the soil, quietly and humbling playing its role, just as significant to the beauty as the trees, but barely recognized. That soil will be there not only for the trees today, but for the next generation of seedlings that will follow.

Being a philanthropy guy, that symbiosis between the soil and the trees conjures the relationship between a strong non-profit organization and the programs it delivers. We all see the program – reading to kids, keeping our rivers clean, administering the vaccines, etc. But what fewer philanthropists notice is the foundation for that program – i.e. the organization itself, its infrastructure, the copier, the lights, the desks, the support staff.

As philanthropists, we can be like I was at the Camp. We notice the trees, but not the soil; we want to give to the program, but not the organization. And yet one can’t exist without the other. In fact, one actually has to come before the other. The program will ultimately be no stronger than the organization underpinning its delivery. The trees will go no higher and be no more majestic than the soil it grows its roots into.

We have to invest in the organization and its capacity, just as much as we invest in the programs and services that we can see. It’s called “capacity building,” but whatever you call it, it’s a vitally important part of a philanthropic investment. If you want beautiful trees, you have to have rich soil. If you want to have effective, sustainable programs, you have to have a strong, stable organizational infrastructure supporting it. It’s as simple, and beautiful, as that.

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