Q&A | Kevin Shanahan: Trusting My Gut

Maida Brankman
Liminal Fund

In May 2015, at the one-year anniversary of Cohort 12's graduation, I contacted members of my cohort with an invitation to reflect on what they have learned since completing the TPW Intensive Program. This is a transcript of an interview with Kevin Shanahan, which has been edited for clarity.

Q: Take us back to the end of our intensive program last May. What was top of mind for you?

KS: I’m not sure exactly what was on my mind at that time, but having completed the TPW program, I did feel much more self-assured with regard to my approach to philanthropy.

The program filled in a lot of the blanks for me in terms of how to identify and assess my “giving” effort. At that time, in many ways, I was relieved with this newfound knowledge and from my collaboration with other cohort and network members. Basically, I came away feeling “…you know, I’m not doing so bad. I’ve actually done a lot of good things.” 

So, I guess, bottomline, I was self-assured and confident as I began to move forward with the rest of my life.

Q: In what ways has your philanthropy in the past year been impacted by what we learned in the TPW Intensive?

KS: How I feel today about “philanthropy” versus how I felt a year ago after the completion of the TPW program is an interesting question.  And, for me, not easily answered.

Before, my thinking was quite simplistic: it was primarily local, it was very limited in scope, somewhat cautious.

It was actually, as it turns out, quite uninformed, it was a bit skeptical, and it was also inexperienced in terms of transferable and scalable use of my philanthropic experience. And, for lack of better terms, my thinking back then was quite innocent and naive. However, I felt pretty confident in my ability to sort things out, and, up to that point, felt comfortable with my giving up.

Today, my thinking about philanthropy is much more complicated, and actually confusing and frustrating. I am much more skeptical, and, to some degree, a bit cynical (i.e., I learned that “philanthropy” is BIG BUSINESS) in my appraisal of the landscape.

I have learned a tremendous amount about myself, the world, and the overwhelming landscape of philanthropic need locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

My actual “doing” has not changed much—if at all—other than to have limited my giving in a number of cases, and in another, it actually expanded where a very specific amount of treasure was given to a specific individual to help enable him to expand his positive impact while encouraging him to continue to pursue his passion.

At this point, I believe my thinking is evolving. I am much, much more knowledgeable and aware. I am more open-minded, and thoughtful, and questioning. I am also much more deeply reserved in responding to my initial instincts about this or that when it comes to a possible philanthropic opportunity. 

My conclusion for now is just to go with this evolution, and see what happens. Trusting that I’m evolving in (the area of) better evaluating where I can make a positive difference. Sticking to areas I understand, that I have vetted, that I feel passionately drawn to, and that I believe will be sustainable, and make a near term, mid-term, and long term positive difference validated by some form of metrics over time. 

My “thinking” has benefitted a great deal from the many, many amazing people I’ve met in my cohort and the network, and the many people with whom I have come in contact with as a direct result of TPW’s efforts in continuing to deliver a very valuable experience to me.

Q: What challenges have come up for you, and how have you addressed them?

KS: Challenges? Hmmm. Well, I’m not sure I have any challenges at this point that I’m aware of with regard to philanthropy. I feel I’m in a good space. Much more relaxed and confident, and not feeling any pressure to come up with something to jump into right away.  I have much more of a faith that the right thing for me will present itself, and then I’ll respond with what I have learned and experienced.

I have reviewed the areas I have been working in (Alzheimer’s, for example) and have taken much more of a hard line approach to determining what is being accomplished, where we are in the spectrum, and what I am personally getting out of it in terms of motivation, accomplishment, and satisfaction.

I’ve had a very in-depth, honest discussion with the doctor who is the principal investigator of our projects. And, while the projects have been successful, I am realizing it is time for me to move on. Amazingly, the big Alzheimer’s registry project has, as I had hoped, become self-sustaining. Big Deal! Also, the TPW experience has made me realize that honest, logical, fact-based conversations are the best.  Cut to the chase, and don’t be bashful. I will be a better philanthropist and do much more good with this approach. 

I guess one challenge for me, and maybe it’s not a challenge but more of a realization, is that I am not “wired” to operate actively in a non-profit board environment. And, additionally complicating is operating in an academic environment; for example, if a non-profit foundation, or research project, happens to be operating inside UCSF (University of California, San Francisco).

In this regard, TPW did help me recognize that having been the principal owner of a number of medium and large companies, companies in which I ultimately “controlled” my own destiny and that of the company, has made me far less collaborative in a non-profit, often times dysfunctional board setting. I am just not very patient or tolerant. This is not a good situation for me, or for the board. This realization is critically important in how I decide to operate in the philanthropic world. Live and learn, I guess, Good lessons.

Q: What is your vision for the year ahead? How about three years out?

KS: Honestly, I have no idea of my vision for one year out, and certainly not for three years out. I know it is evolving, but a big part of my approach now, is to be patient, and let it go.  It will come, and whenever “it” shows up, I’ll be ready. 

Up next: An interview with Karen Jordan, who discovered leverage in the power of convening.

Kevin Shanahan is a retired business owner, entrepreneur, and member of The Philanthropy Workshop.

Maida Brankman is director of Liminal Fund, which supports documentary filmmaking, and is on the board of Working Films.

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