DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The shrewd and harmless tempered radical

Written by: on May 9, 2019

Diane Zemke, in her book Being Smart About Congregational Change, advances strategic and clear thinking around how one can influence change within a system. While her research was specifically focused on the local church context, it has high applicability to any organizational environment. In my case, with my focus on the changing landscapes within private family philanthropy, there were solid parallels. One caught my eye: the idea of the tempered radical.

Tempered radicals are ones who exhibit the traits of maturation and grace. While radical in orientation – they are visionaries and dreamers – they also pragmatically recognize that to get from here to there is not possible without savvy, even political, skills in navigating organizational realities to pursue change together.  These radicals have moved beyond being those who tear everything down and start from scratch, to ones who will work within systems to incrementally move the organization towards a new reality.

Zemke further elucidates:

“Tempered radicals often appear as loyal company employees on the outside, yet are different internally, based on their conflicting values. These conflicting values form the foundation for conflicting identities since our value commitments help construct our identity. It is the struggle to enact these conflicting identities that is at the heart of tempered radicals’ experience. Tempered radicals are not chameleons, exhibiting one identity here and another there. Nor do they lack integrity or authenticity. Indeed, their integrity and authenticity are revealed as they work to honor both identities simultaneously.”[1]

Tempered radicals are those change agents who are “as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.”[2]

Debra Meyerson, Consulting Professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Education, has also captured this idea and writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about its applicability within corporate social responsibility systems. These large business environments have a historical culture focused on profitability. But to move business toward collective social responsibility one must begin on the fringes.

Just like churches that have historic cultural patterns needing change, getting to the desired new culture in businesses will take time. Meyerson advises tempered radicals to start small. Incremental change is the way forward, and small changes inspire cultures to change because they:

  • Are doable;
  • Create a sense of hope and self-confidence;
  • Lead to heightened ambition and more effort;
  • Minimize anxiety and personal risk;
  • Are small enough they don’t bump against the majority system; and
  • Express and sustain different values and identities.[3]

Channelling the passions of tempered radicals into small changes that can incrementally model compelling new landscapes for churches, corporations, and in my case, family foundations, is a model that inspires my work at Stronger Philanthropy. Working with families of wealth where the entrepreneurial founder’s vision dominates is a challenge. Next generations of the family, to own the future of their philanthropy, must own their own vision. Getting there requires each new generation to have ownership that can only be acquired as they have a voice in the future direction of the organization.

My strategy for pursuing change led by next generation family members involves the creation of a sidebar philanthropy (we are starting small!), and focusing it on action, engagement, community development, innovation, and open spirituality. I realized early this year that to get there I couldn’t do it alone, nor could I from my position as a Gen Xer teetering on the dying fringe of Boomer-hood. In response, I hired my Millennial son, Nate, who began work on May 1. Like me, he exhibits tempered radical traits and convictions, but his age and stage made him a likelier candidate to lead my clients’ offspring toward more meaningful expressions of family philanthropy.

This includes the ongoing development of the Spark Initiative which engages Millennial investors with Millennial innovators in a year-long process of learning and doing social innovation as a community. We just concluded the most recent cycle with a retreat that combined both groups held in conjunction with our local university. Read Nate’s report on the retreat here.

Witnessing next gen givers inspired and engaged in philanthropy that transforms communities is still resounding in my spirit. The shrewd, yet harmless, outcome is that foundation founders will be overjoyed to see their kids and grandkids contributing meaningfully to social change, and over time, this new generation will rise to positions of leadership within their own family philanthropy having experienced a new pathway towards engaged generosity.

Researching this topic led me to include a new book in my working bibliography which Nate and I have both read and which guides our tempered radicalism. Edgar Villanueva is a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, and at the same time a Christian and a key philanthropy leader for large foundations in the States. Reconciling his indigenous heritage and identity with the often-white man’s world of family philanthropy is the topic of his book, Decolonizing Wealth.

Villanueva found, just like Zemke, Meyerson, and others, that alienating the system with a scorched earth policy will not serve anyone well. Rather, one must shrewdly erase barriers that exist between the haves and have-nots, freeing up capital to benefit communities, not one’s profile on the donor wall. He states,

“Effectively moving money to where the hurt is worst – using money as medicine – requires the funder to have deep, authentic knowledge of the issues and communities that will be putting the funding to use. Deep authentic knowledge does not come from reading some stats, reports, or articles; it doesn’t even come from a site visit to that community or interviewing someone from the affected community. It comes from living inside that community and experiencing that issue for oneself. Period.”[4]

This shared life together is the calling and blessing of a tempered radical.


[1] Diane Zemke, Being Smart About Congregational Change (Diane L. Zemke, 2014), Kindle loc. 1716.

[2] Matthew 10:16 (NLT)

[3] Meyerson, Debra E. “The Tempered RADICALs.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall, 2004, 14-22, Accessed May 9, 2019.

[4] Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance (Oakland CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2018), 143.


About the Author


Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.