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Words Really Do Matter – Post Papal Visit Update

September 28th, 2015

Richard Marker

Over the summer, I wrote “Words Really Do Matter” – a cautionary missive for those of us who earn our livelihoods with our words. Much of this was targeted to fellow members of the National Speakers Association – some of whom seemed to object to being challenged by those whose narratives included political mandates. My rebuttal: Our charge must be to engage with a seriousness of purpose and not simply entertain. En passant, I called for some greater self-discipline in political discourse.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if that had an impact, but in fact, the character of public discourse has only deteriorated since then. [Don’t misunderstand, I have no illusion that any of the principals have ever heard of me, let alone read my writings.] What concerns me these days is that the level of honesty in that discourse has sunk to despicable new lows; that some are now arguing that what our Declaration of Independence and Constitution consider inalienable rights should be decided by popular vote; that private religious belief and practice, guaranteed by our constitution, should be imposed on the public at the whim of individual believers; that no-nothingness – as in anti-vax and anti-climate change – should be given equal weight in education as scientific consensus; that public insults about size, looks, and pretty much anything else can be offered with impunity; that victims should shoulder the blame as well as bear the burden of their own victimhood…

Each one by itself represents a violation of civility. Taken together they represent a profound erosion of a commitment to civil society seen only in totalitarian regimes. It is scary out there.

I know that reasoned exchange is never as catchy as simplistic extremism; that societal anomie and anger is easier to manipulate for political gain than offering real solutions; that a changed and dangerous world is disruptive and unsettling for too many; that social injustices and economic disparities are glaring threats to stability and play into the hands of demagogues. We are paying the price for elected officials who reject governing; for long term underinvestment in education for our most at-risk populations; for a misguided understanding of American exceptionalism, the same hubris that has dismantled every previous empire in world history; and for being far too slow to root out the deepest hatreds of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and its latest manifestation, anti-Islamism [I don’t like Islamophobia since the word means fear, when we should be calling it what it is, a form of hatred.]

A version of this post was about to be published just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to the USA. If the affect and feeling of the previous paragraphs suggest a sense of deep despair, that would be a correct reading. But in the immediate aftermath of that extraordinary visit to Washington, New York City and Philadelphia, it seems appropriate to revisit those feelings. What was extraordinary to observe over the several days was Pope Francis’ unwavering demonstration of caring and effective leadership. Unafraid to challenge the deepest self-destructive impulses in the USA and the bureaucratic obstructionism in the UN, he quietly, powerfully, effectively called for values of compassion and caring over self-aggrandizement and radical autonomy. He did so with no troops, no great dramatic gestures, and no real political power. But he did model the power of soft-spoken authentic conviction, small symbolic yet humbly authentic acts, a palpable sense of transcendent presence and the courage to address the most existential challenges of our time.

A story I told on Facebook just after it happened: I attended a large interfaith gathering outside of the UN to express support for the signing of the important revised Sustainability Goals. When it ended I walked the 30 blocks to our home. There was little choice since traffic was simply at a standstill, but pedestrians were able to move – until I got to 64th Street. There the sidewalks and streets were fully blocked and many hundreds of us were held in place by the police barricades. If you know New Yorkers, that would not be welcomed cheerfully. However, two minutes later, the Papal motorcade drove by and I saw something rare: all of these hundreds and hundreds of cynical and world-weary New Yorkers who just happened to be at that intersection erupted in a spontaneous cheer and applause. Every cell phones snapped away and when I continued on my way, all I could hear around me was person after person telling someone of their remarkable serendipitous experience. No it was not the same as happening upon a political leader, or even a well-known sports star or celebrity. This was something so universal, and genuine in these responses. That is leadership, and, as we have seen, that is how one uses words and actions to enable change worth making.

It remains to be seen if this visit was simply a flickering light in a political world gone far too dark or the dawn of a sunrise that can purify the soul and cleanse the spirit. The early evidence is mixed – there are those who wasted no time in distancing themselves from the message and, with one notable exception, there has been little reason to see a diminution in the nonsensical and divisive rhetoric from too many aspiring politicians. Will a nation, of all faiths or none in thrall to this insist that this behavior and these words unacceptable for those wishing to be leaders? As Pope Francis has returned to the Vatican, we have been shown a better way to lead… and to speak. As we have said, words really do matter.

Becoming a Philanthro-ethicist

September 15th, 2015

Richard Marker

Years ago, when I started teaching funders, grantmakers, philanthropists, and foundation professionals, grantmaking ethics was one of the core subjects. My goal was and continues to be to help funders navigate the line, often porous, between the law, ethics, and best practices. What I knew from experience both as an individual funder [relatively modest though that may be] and as the ceo of a major foundation, is that most of us in the field had had very little formal training in navigating this area. Along the way I saw that there are some willful violators to be sure, but more typically, funders really do mean well and violate ethical standards more out of naiveté or innocence.

The more I taught this area, the more evident that the issue of power underlies a good deal of this and thus the need for teaching greater “conscious use of self” in the interface between those who want money and those who have it or access to it. Not a big surprise to most of us, I am sure, but providing methodologies and practices for dealing with what, for many, is a daily challenging reality has proven helpful.

In recent years this has become an in-demand topic for me to present at conferences, in keynote presentations, and for invitational workshops. Moreover, foundations on whose boards I sit and others have sought my counsel. [I only wish that some of them had consulted before they had to solve a problem.] And while I am glad and flattered to do this, it has caught me a bit by surprise. Frankly, I had always felt that ethics, law, and best practices are such a basic core competence that anyone who learned about grantmaking would have already mastered it or at least been adequately sensitized. Apparently not, and thus this post which will provide bullet points of a limited sampling of what we explore in greater depth during seminars, classes, or presentations. It seems that I have become a philanthro-ethicist.

Ethics and the Law:

For the purposes of this post, I am restricting my comments to US Law. As one who has had a good deal of experience with philanthropists and foundations in many countries, I am well aware that the particularities of US philanthropy law are not widely shared. Nevertheless, some key elements of US law are suggestive of how to develop universally accepted best ethical practice. [Please note that there are variations in State laws as well; as they like to say in the small print disclaimers, nothing in this article should be perceived as explicit legal advice, only guidelines for thinking about how to set good policy and practice.]

In the US, private foundations are a unique hybrid. They have many of the legal rights and responsibilities of other not-for-profit entities, but they are subject to certain restrictions and privileges not applicable to public charities. In exchange for a degree of control over board, staff, investment, and grantee decisions not available to public charities, private foundations have more accountability on establishing salaries, more explicit and restrictive self-dealing and conflict of interest rules, complete transparency on where every grant dollar is given [not why, just where], and have an annual tax on earnings. Some may argue with some specifics of the rules, but they do remind funders that the name on the foundation door may be yours, but the money no longer is.

At the same time, US law permits at least one unique situation where ethics and the law diverge. Anyone who establishes rules for best practice would never allow a board member to have life-time board tenure and be paid for providing professional services to that organization at the same time, but the law allows lawyers and financial managers to do just that. I suspect that there were some very effective lobbyists involved in establishing these exemptions, but they are not good practice – for any foundation.

Conflict of interest:

There is a difference between self-dealing, a financial category unequivocally forbidden by the law, and conflict of interest which in most States is subject to the judgment of a board of directors. A few key points:

Every organization should mandate that every board and staff member file a “conflict of interest statement” at least annually detailing potential financial and governance issues where he or she may have competing interests. One hopes that this is a virtually universal practice by now. What many boards forget to do, though, is act on those statements. Merely having those statements on file does not advise either the board or the filer whether that reported COI represents a problematic or de-minimus conflict. There should be a record of a properly designated committee of the board [perhaps the executive committee] minuting its decisions. It avoids all sorts of potential problems down the line.

Many boards are at a loss about what is valid, fair, and ethical in the area of whether or not it is appropriate to sit on the board of a grantee organization. In my opinion, the simplest rule of thumb should be appearance: if your foundation makes competitive grants in a variety of locales, the foundation should err on the side of a more restrictive policy. If your foundation exclusively does place based funding of the same core local organizations every year, there is little likelihood of misinterpreting the dual roles and therefore I would endorse a more lenient policy. [Happy to talk directly to those of you with specific questions.]

Ethics of Funder Behavior: Transparency

Every foundation should make its guidelines and application public. It is perfectly legal and ethical for a foundation not to accept any unsolicited proposals. It is perfectly legal and ethical to have strict limits and guidelines on where and for what purposes grants will be given. It may be bad practice for this information to be hidden away, but it is unethical for these blanket statements to apply only to some potential beneficiaries. In other words, foundations can legitimately have multiple processes and even differing guidelines – but it should not be an inscrutable mystery to know what is what.

Timelines for decisions should also be transparent. Foundations and individual funders have no obligation whatsoever to make decisions within any particular timeline, but if a grant request is submitted and is being considered, the seeker should know when a decision will be rendered, and be informed forthwith.

The field has real internal disagreements about what information should be shared about why decisions have been made. As long as there are no discrimination laws as stake, there is no legal issue in this. Sometimes, as I have written in more depth in other settings, there are many internal reasons for a “no” that have nothing to do with a proposal’s merit. Other times, there is constructive feedback that can improve not only a future proposal but also the proposed program itself. Judgment will rule about how much information to share and in what form, but in any case, it is most appropriate to share information that will be of use to the organization. Therefore, ethics mandates that it is better to say nothing than to lead a potential grantee on about future opportunities, or to give misleading feedback about the proposal. [For those interested in this subject, in addition to my previous postings, please see the websites of NCRP, GEO, and the Foundation Center for more extended discussion.]

Ethics of Funder Behavior: Potential Grantees

Funders realize that they are in a power imbalance with those who want funds. It is hard not to. Whether one is the principal or a representative [e.g., foundation staff], being a walking dollar sign in every room is our norm. How one reacts, though, is where ethics enters the picture. Here are a few examples:

Asking for favors: Sad to say, some funders assume that a charitable gift is an open ended purchase of a personal benefit, such as seats or priority access. While the law, and best practices, limit or forbid such quid pro quo unless it is related to the gift itself, no one in our field is so blind or naïve to think that it doesn’t happen…which doesn’t make it right. Those who have foundations should be aware that there are different laws for foundations and individuals. Foundations have stricter legal parameters on this issue, but the ethics are the same. As a straightforward way to think about the ethics of one’s behavior: There is a difference between recognition connected to a contribution vs. asking for personal favors simply because you have been a funder.

Site Visits: A site visit can be one of the most effective tools of due diligence a funder can utilize. It affords a look at and feel for a potential grantee in a way that reading a document, a proposal, a 990, or other material cannot do. A well organized and planned site visit can be indispensible in helping to make a decision.

From an ethics perspective, that very last phrase is key – helping to make a decision. If there is no decision to be made, or a funder simply thinks it would be “interesting” to stop by a non-profit of his or her choosing, please think twice. [Of course, I am not talking about institutions that are open to the public.] Remember that a visit by a funder can be disruptive. Staff are told to clean their desks or dress a little more formally and program staff may be called away from their primary work. Sure, in a university or a large museum, there are enough development staff that the disruption will be minor, but in smaller and more direct service organizations there are genuine issues of confidentiality and limited personnel.

Beware of the implicit tease as well. Organizations looking for support will look for any indication of your interest. Even if you tell them you are only “looking”, from their perspective, once you see how great they are, can you not be interested in funding them? YOU have raised expectations. Don’t be surprised when the proposal arrives on your desk.

There are many more examples. The underlying ethical mandate is that a funder must have “conscious use of self”. It is funders’ [or perceived potential funders’] obligation to be aware of how they are acting and how that action may be perceived.

The Ethics of Grantmaking

We have previously discussed some of the procedural issues. These few bullet points address a much more elusive, and controversial matter, the level of influence and intervention in the relationship with a grantee.

Social Justice – Personnel Practices of the Grantee

I am well aware that not everyone agrees with the following position:

I believe that ethical grantmaking requires that funders review the personnel practices of grantees. Far too many non-profits balance their budgets on the backs of their staff. Remember, non-profit does not require, nor should it even imply, a vow of poverty. Underpaid, under-benefited, and under-recognized staff burn out and limit the long term achievement of any organization. If funders are concerned about the long term success and viability of their grantees, then ethics and social justice should require an examination of staff tenure, training, compensation, and benefits.

There is a good deal of press attention every year about the top salaries in the not-for-profit world. When salary surveys list the highest salaries, popular opinion gets outraged about the appearance of over-paying some senior executives in the sector. Required 990 tax returns ask about the highest salaries, and only about the highest salaries. Why don’t those same tax returns require listing the bottom 5 salaries? Why is there not the same righteous indignation in the press when full time employees are paid marginal salaries and a very limited benefit package?

Some funders reply that it isn’t their business; those are internal matters. My response: asking about these policies is not the same as mandating specific ones. Moreover, if funders ask only about balanced budgets and not about the human costs of balancing those budgets or what it would really cost to provide consistent high quality services, we funders are at fault when non-profits exhibit counterproductive personnel practices and resulting mediocrity in performance.

Influencing the Direction of Grantee Organizations

In recent years, the issue of funder intervention in the direction of their grantees has surfaced quite regularly, for both good reasons and bad. There is a sense in much of the philanthropy world that there are just too many non-profit organizations. I am sure that some of that is true, but I am unconvinced that it is as major a problem as some say. It does put more of an onus on us in the funder sphere to make more careful judgments and to determine what is duplication and what are appropriately different or parallel responses to different neighborhoods, stakeholder groups, etc.

One response among some funders has been to exercise some “influence” on their grantees to collaborate more and to consider mergers. Our record is mixed to say the least.

Collaborations are an interesting step in that they can test out new efficiencies, cultural alignment, synergies, and compatible expertise, and I am all in favor of funders funding experiments in functional collaborations among their grantees. Mergers, on the other hand, are existential. One or more of the organizations will cease to exist, at least in a recognizable form, after a merger. It is an ethical issue, with lots of grey around the edges, for a funder to be heavy handed in pushing mergers unless it is absolutely clear that one of the organizations will soon fold if some life saving measure isn’t taken. This is not to argue that such discussions are never appropriate, only to underscore their delicacy. They are never risk free.

Anther area where funders often make the case that they know better than their grantees is identifying changing demographics or latest best practices in a field of service. Here, too, our record is mixed. Even when a funder is objectively correct, the transformation of an existing organization to meet these new or emerging or perceived realities is not always easy. There may be years of genuine expertise at stake; there may be stakeholders who would be abandoned; there may be facilities with designated purposes that would have to be abandoned or repurposed. Here, too, this is not to suggest that there is never a time for funders to raise these issues, even forcefully at times, but that the ethics surrounding raising those issues mandates that funders must bear significant responsibility for holding organizations harmless should they be persuaded that the funder is correct – and, at least for the short term, even if they disagree.

My own hands as an executive of a foundation were not fully clean in this area. In retrospect, there were actions we took both single handedly and with partner funders which saved some organizations, helped others to prosper, and re-aligned even others. However, sad to say, there were failures as well, where it is clear that heavy-handedness by a group of funders was responsible for failures. It taught me a lot of humility, to say nothing of ethics.


The subjects raised in this post are by no means exhaustive. They are suggestive of how important ethics must be in the work that we as funders do, in the way in which we act, and in the influence that accrues to us. It appears that I have become a philanthro-ethicist – a worthy place to be.

I invite readers to feel free to let me know of additions to this list you would like me to address publicly in the future or privately immediately.

Seeking Your Passion: Meaningful Work or Meaningful Life

August 31st, 2015

Richard Marker

For about 30 years, under various guises and always targeted, presumably, to the latest “next-gen”, young and not so young people have been advised to seek their passion. I suspect that some bookstores still have “What Color is Your Parachute?” prominently displayed. Commencement speakers, career counselors, and equally anguished contemporaries commiserate with your frustration at a position that [pick as many as apply] doesn’t allow you to be yourself, doesn’t allow your natural creativity to emerge, doesn’t empower you to do anything, doesn’t think you should have a life beyond a 24/7 commitment, expects full loyalty to the boss, thinks you are too young, thinks you are too old, thinks you are too experienced, thinks you don’t have enough experience…[add more as appropriate].

Some years ago, I frequently offered a seminar for career seekers and changers that focused very much on how to determine ahead of time if a job or workplace is right for you and how to use networking interviews to figure that out. I pointed out the limitations of job descriptions [they change all the time so that shouldn’t be the primary determining factor in taking or not taking a position], the importance of the environment and culture of a place [if you are the kind of person who likes solitude, you may not like a very social coffee klatch centered place; if you like constant reinforcement of the quality of your work, you may not thrive in a place which empowers everyone to work as independently as possible; if you want to wear jeans everyday, a wealth management’s suits mandate may not bring out the best in you; you get it.]; the importance of acknowledging that your professional and personal life goals will probably change over time [it is very, very hard to have a life plan which anticipates all of the ways you and your life situation will evolve.]; and don’t assume that any sector is a better or worse place to work [there are private for profit firms which are great and fulfilling places and there are non profits which chew people up and spit them out – and vice versa].

All of these and the other advice that I offered still seem true to me. But this post is about what was only an aside in those earlier presentations:

When people come to me for career thinking, and it still happens all the time, a common complaint is that they want to do something that is interesting and meaningful. My response is “what is stopping you?” You won’t do something that you care about or love doing until someone pays you? That is a guaranteed way to get burned out, bored, and boring. In my own career, every single move I made was because I was already finding ways to do the things that reflected my emerging interests long before anyone paid me a cent for them. Not every new interest or hobby or extracurricular commitment led to a career opportunity, but every new career opportunity emerged from finding ways to accommodate my emergent self while still doing the work I was being paid to do.

Your passions and your interests don’t have to be fulfilled in the workplace. Sure, Hallmark movies and human interest stories love to focus on the exceptional person who chucked it all and went off to fulfill his or her dreams, and in the process found love and fortune. Hey, it happens. But you cannot count on it, and sometimes it isn’t really an option. Family and financial limitations are not so easily dismissible for most, and besides, who says that one’s identity must be defined solely by work?

Doing something you love or care deeply about or that gives you gratification makes you a more productive and engaging person. When a potential employer is faced with multiple equally matched candidates, which one do you think she or he remembers? Trust me, as one who used to hire people all the time: the one who is interesting, whose passion for life is evident, and who shows signs of the agility to grow and change as the surrounding reality changes always gets the job.

What really matters is to build in and create time around what gives happiness: people, projects, hobbies, indulgences. Some of us are lucky and a lot of that happens at work. More typically much of that happens outside of the work place. No one is so lucky that every moment of every day in every career stop is transcendent. And everyone, everyone, over the course of a lifetime, and in the course of every week, month, or year along the way, needs to make sure that there is attention to the cultivation of our own selves, our meaning, and, yes, our passions.

Maybe you may end up getting the job of your dreams. More certainly, you’ll be living more of your dream. It’s worth it.

The Market Ride: Implications for Funders – and Their Grantees

August 25th, 2015

Richard Marker

We’ve been here before. It wasn’t fun then and it isn’t fun now. No one and no foundation likes to see 10 or 20% of net worth or net assets disappear in the blink of an eye – or in our era, before our eyes on screens both large and small. Certainly doesn’t make me happy. Wiser folks than I can comment on the causes and what you should and shouldn’t do as an investor. I will restrict these comments to the sector I know best. For those in the funding world, there are some useful lessons from past wild swings.

1. If you are a foundation, you should be celebrating your decision to do 3 year averaging for determining your asset base and grantmaking budgets. Whatever happens during the remaining 4 months of this year, your grantmaking planning will have the cushion of time to do whatever longer term re-thinking may be necessary.
2. This has a great advantage for those of your grantees who receive a substantial amount of their gifts from funders whose decisions are more checkbook sensitive. Unless there is a significant rebound by December, they will all see reductions this year in their end of year giving but know that your prior commitments are reliable.
3. History has shown that there can be various grantmaking approaches depending where things end up after the market settles down. It has also shown the fallacy of funders responding too quickly and precipitously. We know that recipient organizations will have differing needs: some will need to account for cash flow challenges of slower government reimbursables; some will feel that their own destiny lies in consideration of a merger that they had resisted previously; those that receive the majority of their support from major gifts and foundation grants will probably see a deferred response [see #1], but may have a slower recovery for the same reason; some, having 2008 fresh in their memory might be panicking and asking their funders for emergency support – at a time when funders are psychologically spooked. Your own support – or non-support – should weigh how those needs align with your own giving strategy.
4. Remember, we have an advantage this time around because of 2008. Many funders were forced to rethink our own priorities, values, and strategies. The market may have done very well these past few years, but not for such a long time that thoughtful funders ignored our own strategies carefully honed in 2009 and 2010.
5. If you do find that your funding capacity becomes significantly reduced when you do need to make decisions, we can be helpful with ethical and productive approaches to think through your own situation. If and when that happens, be in touch directly for some proven guidelines that I will be happy to share.
6. Those of you on the non-profit side seeking funds should also take a deep breath. Thoughtful funders are waiting this out. Panicked investors are not in the mood to hear from panicked non-profits. Hopefully you too learned the lessons of 2008-2009 and have deeper reserves, are more ready for uncertainties, and have an informed governance and leadership team able to steady your ship. If you are a start-up, you are forgiven if you don’t. If you have been around for a while, shame on you if you don’t.

As I said above, we’ve been here before. Anyone who says that we are in a cataclysmic time is probably needlessly histrionic. Anyone who said it wouldn’t happen again has refused to learn from history. And for the rest of us, take a nap; turn off the TV, and take that end of summer vacation you need more than ever.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Tear Down That Silo! [A crowdsource inquiry]

August 19th, 2015

Richard Marker

With apologies for the mixed metaphor of the title, this post is about deconstructing self constructed silos.

There is a “rule of three” in the assessment and strategy world: one or two responses not in keeping with a consensus should probably be dismissed as idiosyncratic, but when three or more similar concerns arise, even if they are not precisely identical, it is worth looking further.

On a recent cross-country flight, I found myself sitting next to the president of a national cable network. As we discussed each other’s work and careers, he suggested that my approach to philanthropy strategy could easily apply in the corporate world, and wondered if I had ever thought about sharing my approach with other constituencies. It was about the 10th suggestion of a similar nature I had received in the last few months. If the rule of 3 is sufficient to look further, presumably 10 is enough to hit one over the head with a 2 x 4.

Over the last 17 years or so, I have been committed to cultivating an “expertise” approach to my work. My feeling has been that if someone is hiring me to speak, or advise, or teach, I should be as much of an expert in my field as anyone. No one has the right to claim to be “the best” in anything, but a foundation or funder should be able to look at me and feel that I am as expert as anyone else they might want to hear or work with. And, perhaps immodestly, I am confident that it is, on the whole, a fair assessment.

The field of my expertise has been philanthropy, not just philanthropy in general, but more specifically the funder side. It means that I have carefully and purposely deflected non-philanthropy work or even philanthropy work, such as fundraising, which is way beyond my competence. I don’t consult on topics about which I don’t feel that I am an expert [even if in the past I might have]. Nor have I been actively seeking to speak to non-funder audiences.

All of these practices have been emphatically challenged in recent months by a variety of people. Their arguments:

1. “What you have to say about philanthropy is applicable to everyone. In the USA in particular, philanthropy is an everyday issue, and increasingly a topic in the press. Shouldn’t your expertise be made more widely available? Why restrict your speaking about philanthropy to philanthropy audiences?” [These folks then go on to list a variety of potential audiences who would benefit if they only knew…] 2. “There are related professional groups that should benefit from your expertise. Philanthropy and charitable giving mean very different things depending on whether one is a wealth advisor, a trust and estate attorney, a CPA, a planned giving officer, or [like me] a philanthropy advisor. These silos really should be destroyed since each group maintains its own narrow understanding of how its expertise applies, not always to the benefit of clients who are funders. You should be more assertive in challenging this professional insularity.”
3. “You have insights and experiences which apply derivatively in all sorts of other contexts – e.g., Work-place practices, strategy approaches, organizational development, leadership, aligning strategy and culture, mentoring, pedagogy [to list only the subjects explicitly proposed by others.], and are an accomplished public speaker. Why are you so reluctant to speak to or take contracts in some of those other settings?”
4. “You have a shortsighted business model – focus/expertise is one thing but that shouldn’t eliminate legitimate and credible ‘brand extension.’ Even if your primary audience is the funder community, the broader your reach, the more likely that they will hear of you.”

Hmmm… All of these critiques are more or less on target.

It is true that I have often posited, and written, that philanthropy is not just for the very deep pocketed, and that 21st century technology empowers much more decentralized and democratized philanthropy practices.

It is true that I have often railed against the counter-productive nature of the silos in which we operate, especially within the philanthropy sector itself.

It is true that my own expertise is built upon a robust professional history of multiple careers which bridge sectors. Yet, I have developed a professional practice which is singular in its target market.

It is true that I have focused all of my energy in our sector, limited though it may seem to others – because I so value the importance of thoughtful, ethical, and wise philanthropy. Even so, the underlying approaches need not be so limited. There really is no reason that others cannot benefit from those approaches and methodologies.


So, I decided to take these thoughts seriously and convened a couple of informal groups of trusted professional advisors on all of this. These are their suggestions:

A. More public offerings on philanthropy and giving: Offer seminars and presentations on how anyone and everyone can be a philanthropist. Experiment small-scale to see which ones are most well received before going prime time.
B. Consider additional audiences to share insights on organizational design, career pathing, and professional development.
a. My untypical professional narrative and inter-sector experience can be played out for the benefit of other sectors, especially as it pre-dates and predicts the real-life experience of millenials in having multiple self directed careers.
b. Some of the leadership models I developed in the years when I was a ceo or senior executive in the nfp field are still perceived by many to be cutting edge. Yet, in recent years I have restricted my conversations about them to advising funders on how to make good choices about recipient organizations. Perhaps groups such as YNPN or the Support Center or Talent Philanthropy would be interested so their members can learn from those experiences, and build on them.
C. Consider translating and adapting the now proven distinctive strategy model into a tool useable by others outside the grantmaking field; be open to accepting some contracts outside the funder sector. The strategy model I use was developed while doing private sector consulting about 25 years ago; I have since fine-tuned it exclusively for foundation and funder planning. But as my above mentioned travel companion reminded me, the underlying concepts are not exclusive to funders; they apply equally well in any business or organization concerned about developing an implementable strategy plan. Unlike many strategy plans, it is not likely to sit gathering dust on a shelf.
D. Consolidate the numerous articles and posts I have written on management and organizational leadership [see #3 above] into a booklet or manual for wider circulation.

Crowd-sourced query: The abiding wake-up message for me in all of their suggestions is to get out of my own self-constructed silo. Do you agree? Would you add to their list? Or do you recommend that I stick to my carefully honed expertise and maintain that laser focus on philanthropy for funders? Interesting crossroads.

Lest you think this post is only about me: I wonder if our philanthropy field as a whole might also benefit from the same advice – to deconstruct our self-limiting silos.

Grantmaking and Fundraising – No, They are not the same thing

August 13th, 2015

Richard Marker

It seems as if I have been spending a good deal of time recently addressing those on the fundraising side of the sector. This post adds to my previous posts on this topic – based on a number of recent conversations and presentations.

This recent spate began when a very respected and experienced professional wrote to say that she had just finished earning a credential in fundraising and concluded her enthusiastic comments saying “Now that we are in the same field, it would be great to get together to talk about it.” I responded with congratulations and a willingness to get together, but with a demurral. I clarified that I am not in the fundraising field at all; I only work with and teach those who give; her response was “Isn’t it really the same thing?”

In fairness to her, it is a comment I hear quite regularly from development professionals and fundraising folks, but never from those of us on the funder side. Indeed I heard it again just 2 days ago when someone wishing to make a career change into grantmaking explained to me that, as a fundraiser, she deals with foundations all the time so, of course, she insisted, she understands what it would be like to work in a foundation.

Just today, I received a referral from a well-known fundraising professional who is well aware of what I do. The introduction to me was that a prominent volunteer had a need for some foundation support. When I followed up, this prominent volunteer was looking for someone to do foundation research for fundraising purposes and had explained that to the fundraiser to whom, evidently, it is the same thing.

It is sort of understandable why a fundraiser might think so. After all, grantmakers must give money and development professionals seek money. There is indeed an interface.

But what differs is what happens surrounding that interface, and that makes all the difference. As I have written in previous posts over the years, how one spends ones time, what counts, what considerations come into play, indeed the very nature of the relationship to the funding process are not analogous at all. Some years ago, I developed a couple of interactive case studies I use to illustrate this in workshops. Development professionals are invariably quite surprised.

As if to demonstrate how even vocabulary means different things, a recent presentation is suggestive. When discussing trends in grantmaking, I used the term “capacity building”. When I asked this group of 20 fundraising students what that meant to them, they all immediately confirmed that it has to do with determining the capacity of an organization to raise money for a capital campaign. Well, it is true that some funders do provide support for a development professional as a part of a capacity building effort, but I have yet to meet a funder who doesn’t understand the term “capacity building” to mean something quite different: to strengthen the organization itself – utilizing a variety of intervention methods, which may or may not include strengthening its development abilities. Similar words; dissimilar meaning.

Another indicative case is how fundraisers and grantmakers describe the much heralded and celebrated Robin Hood Foundation in New York. When I ask what makes it distinctive, development folks all point to the wildly successful fundraising gala Robin Hood holds each year and the commitment of their very well-healed board to cover all overhead and infrastructure costs. Impressive indeed. But for funders, the Robin Hood Foundation is distinctive because of its approach to their grantees – their insistence on assessment, continual improvement, long-term commitments, and a singular focus to addressing poverty related issues in New York City.

Most funders know about the Robin Hood Foundation’s society page worthy fundraising event, but almost no fundraiser knows what they do with their funds once they raise them. Had this anecdote happened only once or twice, one might discount it. But it such a consistent response that one may safely generalize how different our perspectives are.

Even LinkedIn seems to elide the two roles. While I am certainly not looking for a job, thank you very much, LinkedIn seems to think that the word philanthropy in my profile means fundraising. Sure enough, I regularly get suggestions for jobs I might be interested in, or groups I might want to join, the majority of which are for fundraisers. I cannot speak to their algorithm but clearly folks like me don’t seem to represent an identifiable pool.

And, lest this set of observations give the misimpression that I am only critical of others, my own elevator speech doesn’t seem to make it clear to people either, no matter how many iterations I have tried. When folks hear the world philanthropy, they seem not to hear the rest and assume that I am a fundraiser. It usually takes a bit of back and forth before they get that I do something totally different.

Why is it so difficult? One reason, of course, is that there are many more non-profit organizational fundraisers than highly accomplished professional grantmakers. Statistically, once one is outside of narrow settings in our grantmaking and foundation world, we are quite a minority. After all, in the USA, there are at least 15 times as many non-profits hoping to raise money as there are private foundations which grant money, and the majority of those private foundations don’t have any staff at all.

More to the point, our field, foundation professionals and advisors to funders, continues to be an amalgam of folks with diverse credentials, or none at all. Fundraisers, as most professionals in every field, have earned-certification requirements or credentials. [Full disclosure: While I am very proud of the professional level certification in grantmaking available through the NYU Academy for the last 14 years, it is still a drop in the bucket about which most in our field are unaware.] On our side, the funding side, there are no formal barriers to entry. Anyone can hang up a shingle as a “Philanthropy Advisor” or be hired by a foundation. Knowledge of the law, ethics, power, best practices, grantmaking strategies, policies, and so much more are rarely expected, to say nothing of required. That doesn’t mean that there are not many wonderfully competent and capable people in our field but far too many are not – even if they have jobs or clients. The long out of date concept that one can only learn grantmaking on the job makes it much to easy to dismiss that this is a field and, ultimately, a profession.

This is not simply a plea for a socially easier way to self identify. As long time readers know, I believe it is a lacuna in our field itself: Funders, foundations, and those who advise or work for them are responsible for billions of dollars, influence public policy and the entire ngo/nfp sector, and can do so with little oversight or accountability beyond the most marginal legal requirements.

No wonder the average person doesn’t immediately get it; and no wonder that fundraisers, who have earned a CFRE, think we do the same things. We don’t. But until we accept that we need credentials, training, and professional standards, we will continue to need very long elevator rides to explain ourselves. Maybe, then, people, including development pro’s, will see how different our work really is.

[I will soon be posting a follow up to this piece that will propose some paths forward for the sector as a whole – including those of us fully ensconced on the funder side.]

Words Really Do Matter – Use Them Wisely and Ethically

August 11th, 2015

Richard Marker

Well, I hadn’t planned to add to the noise surrounding the unconscionable pre-presidential campaign – in the United States. I really hadn’t.


Many of you know that I am a proud member of the National Speakers Association, and by extension of the Global Speakers Federation, a professional affiliation of those around the USA and elsewhere in the world who earn a significant part of our livelihood as paid speakers. Public Speaking is a competence that has given me great gratification, and enabled me to give presentations in 39 countries on 5 continents over my career. [Australia, what are you waiting for?]

At the recent annual convention, one of the morning plenary sessions was devoted to guest presenters who had lived through or witnessed horrific experiences, were changed by them, and who had deep and abiding messages based on them. I don’t exactly know what process was used to decide whom to invite or which messages were best to convey to a group of 1700 professional speakers, but I, for one, found the morning to be thought-provoking even if I myself might have chosen some other, equally challenging, topics.

At the luncheon that followed, however, a surprising number of folks sitting around the tables complained. “We didn’t come here to be depressed or to engage in political discourse; we came to be uplifted and to enhance our skills.”

I confess that I was surprised. After all, we make our living through words and ideas. To be sure, some of our colleagues are wonderful entertainers, musicians, or comedians. But most of us, including humorists and musicians, are purveyors of ideas. And we use words, in speech and in writing, to convey those ideas. Words matter. How we say things matters.

What we say matters as well. We should weigh not simply how to get applause, or a chuckle, or a return engagement, but also the value of those words, the ethics of those words, the power of those words to change experiences and lives. What was important to me, as a member of NSA/GSF that morning of the recent conference was that we were being reminded of how important and powerful and influential words can be, even if they leave us a bit uncomfortable and uneasy. I was disappointed in the segment of our professional group that so easily dismissed the value of being discomfited – if for no other reason than they so easily dismissed exactly one of the reasons for such a professional association to exist. Our association spends a good deal of time addressing the ethics of stories, quotations, and competition. We should spend an equal amount of time remembering that we must model the responsibility that accrues when we have a mastery of the spoken word, and the ethical mandate of truth when we have the command of the stage. These are not little things.

Which, unfortunately, brings me to what passes for political discourse these days. Leaving aside the frightening spectacle of Trump-ed up demagoguery on the world stage, what are we to make of the anti-scientific, anti-educational, implicitly racist and explicitly nativist comments of many other candidates? No matter how much one repeats a false mantra does not make it true, even if it may make it popular. Willful ignorance, no matter how cleverly stated or clothed in populist garb, must not be allowed to rise to legitimacy. The 20th Century, more than any other in world history, taught us the destructive nature of this kind of malignant discourse. The world, our world, the world in which we live, and the world we hope for our children, dare not risk a repetition in the 21st.

Those of us who earn our livelihood through words know more than most how powerful, transcendent, and transformative words can be. We owe it to ourselves, our audiences, and the public polity to insist that others are held to the ethical standards we must demand of ourselves. We, all of us, need no less.

What’s With the Recent Attention to Collaboration among Funders? And, by the way, Whatever Happened to “Collective Impact.”

June 25th, 2015

Richard Marker

Collaborations are hot! It was a running topic at the Council on Foundations annual meeting in San Francisco. There were many sessions on all sorts of effective and successful collaborations, mergers, partnerships; Collaboration was the theme of the recent national “Summit on Family Philanthropy”. Collaboration was the subject a recent workshop at the Foundation Center, which taught methods for encouraging organizational collaborations of all sorts. Even while about to publish this piece I received notice of 2 upcoming national meetings focused exclusively on Collaboration.

And this says nothing about the number of organizations, consultants, and affinity groups issuing reports, white papers, and anecdotal evidence of the importance of partnerships and collaborations of all sorts. [I guess I am not exempt – witness this posting!]

As I attended all of these meetings, and read even more, I rarely heard the words “collective impact”.

That was a bit of a surprise. For the previous 2 or 3 years, it was hard to attend any philanthropy meeting or conference without hearing “collective impact” around every turn. It was as if any conversation of the value of collaboration had morphed into this articulation. It is a phrase laden with aspiration, and more important, acknowledges that most of the problems worth solving require inter-sector collaboration, on the local, regional, national, or international level. Filled with promise…and perhaps faddishness? We’ll return to this a little later.

Long time readers and clients are well aware of my work in advising funders in implementing partnerships and collaborations. My knowledge was earned over almost a 20-year period: I have chaired several funding collaboratives and have participated in several others. A practicum I wrote a number of years ago, providing a detailed checklist for effective collaboration, updated regularly, has been requested more than any single practicum piece I have written. [As I said in another recent post, it is available upon request.] Yet on those occasions when I was asked to speak about “collective impact” I demurred since I wasn’t convinced that I fully understood the difference between this term and many other successful but more modestly labeled collaborations and partnerships.

Let’s be clear: “alone” is the default funding behavior. No funders collaborate except for the purpose of leveraging their partnership to accomplish greater impact, to do what they don’t feel they can accomplish alone. Many collaborations are for the clear purpose of leveraging money, either by expanding the funding pool or by achieving better efficiencies. But many others are created to leverage influence or to access greater expertise. As we’ll discuss below, a growing number of funders are committed to address and redress deeply persistent systemic issues; even the richest funders recognize that many of society’s ills and woes simply cannot be solved by throwing money alone, that they require multi-sector coordination, and demand public policy advocacy.

“Horizontal partnerships”, a way of defining funding collaboratives, are based on all of the collaborators being on the same side of the table. Even if not everyone brings an equal amount of money, influence, or expertise to that table, the collective is there to have an impact on an external project, program, or organization.

There are also “vertical partnerships”, when a funder or funders and an organization or organizations work together on a project. This is not the same as the currently common euphemism that many funders use to say that all of their grantees are partners. No, a vertical partnership is when there is joint planning on outcome expectations, on funding needs, on long-term exit strategies, and on decision-making. While many funder-grantee arrangements have many or most of these characteristics, what distinguishes a vertical partnership is the collaboration from the very beginning of the planning and carries all the way through implementation.

In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in “inter-sector collaborations.” Cooperation between the private sector, the philanthropy sector, the non-profit/ngo sector and the government sector are exponentially more complex. Each has a different accountability, a set of legitimate but not always overlapping stakeholders, different bottom line measures, and even divergent operating ethics. In a funding partnership among foundations, the foundations can voluntarily agree to limit their prerogatives; some inter-sector partners don’t even have the legal right to make those concessions. Yet solving the systemic challenges of our time requires no less.

Many of the largest and far reaching inter-sector collaborations are at the very beginnings, or only now beginning to yield reportable and measurable results. And it still remains to be seen how widely replicable some are.

One fascinating example is “Pay For Success” or “Social Impact Bonds.” They are intriguing and seem to suggest some real applicability for public sector financial benefit and societal benefit at the same time – but it is by no means clear how widely applicable they realistically are. Very telling about some of the early models is that the participation of many well-healed wealth companies has been conditioned on guarantees by the philanthropy sector!!! [There is a very large literature on this to which I refer you if you want more in-depth discussion of this topic than this post allows.]

In general, for all of their challenges, though, such collaborations must be a sine-qua-non for systemic problem solving. Take any issue: public health, poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, refugees, education, to list a few “simple” ones. No one sector can ever solve these issues alone, and none can be adequately redressed without governments, social service, private sector, and philanthropic involvement working hand in hand. So even if some of the models have yet to be fully proven, any funder committed to systemic issues must consider inter-sector collaborations as a part of their philanthropic toolbox.

But, let’s be clear, especially with the onslaught of attention to collaborations in every corner of the philanthropy field: partnerships are not for the faint of heart, or for the impatient. They are time consuming; they introduce a variety of complexities to the funding process that individual funders need not face; successful collaborations require that participants surrender some of their autonomy. Upfront agreements on process, decision-making, management, desired outcomes, longevity, and exit strategies all require a seriousness of purpose and clarity. And those are only what must be decided before beginning.

And once begun, any collaboration demands continued commitment. Unlike a grant from a single funder that may simply require oversight, monitoring, or evaluation, collaboration works only when the partners continue to invest their time, energy, and wisdom. And since there are more players in a collaborative, and any projects worth collaborating on require in-depth attention, collaborations are rarely simple and will call for for regular redirection, modification, and reinvention.

If collaborations and partnerships are intriguing but new for you, I recommend starting by going slow and small. Make sure you have the stomach and energy, and if you are a foundation, that the culture of your foundation is sufficiently compatible with your new partners. You may find that you are NOT a great collaborator. Despite what some in our field may intimate, that is perfectly legitimate. There is still great and important philanthropy that yields meaningful impact when done alone.

If, though, you discover that this is your métier, it is always possible to expand your reach as time goes on. And you may find that you are engaged in a level of challenging and sophisticated funding which truly does hold the promise of impact collectively way beyond that which you could have accomplished alone. In other words, some may say: “collective impact.”

Relationships Do Matter

June 22nd, 2015

Richard Marker

In a recent post, we discussed the preconditions for “relationship” in the funder-grantee continuum. My main point was a cautionary message to grantseekers that simply trying to develop a relationship, by whatever means, is highly unlikely to yield funding if there is no shared funding interest with the potential funder. It does, though, matter once both sides determine that there are shared interests. This post expands on the importance of relationships after that.

Recently, I have had a number of reasons to affirm the centrality of good and trusting personal relationships in all of our work: in collaborations, in partnerships, and, most important, good professional connections of all sorts. Indeed, this post acknowledges a lacuna – both in my teaching of funders and in my own professional initiatives. In fact, I have, perhaps very late in the day, come to accept that interpersonal relationships are indispensable for these important collaborations, joint efforts, and initiatives to succeed, and require as much expertise and attention as the work itself. In reviewing with fresh eyes my very popular checklist on how to develop effective collaborations I have made widely available for several years, I see that it outlines the necessary structures and preconditions for success, but virtually nothing on the human dimensions.

A surprising source, Newt Gingrich, whose politics rarely align with my own, was a speaker at the recent annual conference of the Council on Foundations. In talking about his own unlikely ongoing collaboration with those far to his left, he mentioned that none of that could happen were it not for real trust which had long been cultivated and husbanded between himself and his team with their counterparts. He averred, unequivocally, that without that personal relationship, it simply couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened.

13 years ago, when I was in the process of gathering insights from the philanthropy field in preparation for being a philanthropy educator, there was a remarkable convergence on topics and consensus on the competences a good funder should have. One of those was “interpersonal communication.” Over the years, my seminars and teaching have had a heavy emphasis on ethics, best practices, power. I have urged funders to be very self aware as funders, the “conscious use of self” of a funder’s role, and how we behave, intentionally or unintentionally, to those who want funds. It is well documented how easy for funders to not fully perceive how we come across, how our very presence can imply power, and how easily our role allows us to receive highly filtered information. What I now realize is that I have overlooked one very important implicit component of effective funder-grantee relations: I have always focused on the roles and not the relationships, yet it has become clear to me that a relationship is the authentic implementation of the roles.

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending the National Summit on Family Philanthropy. The theme was effective collaborations. Some of the sessions focused on very successful ones; others on flawed ones; most were filled with challenges. Given my new attentiveness to the role of relationships, I was struck that every successful partnership or collaboration, whether among funders, among grantees, or in vertical combination of both, emphasized how important the development of a trusting relationship was to its success. I particularly appreciated those presenters who discussed how they had successfully facilitated those relationships, or conversely, how they had undermined their own best efforts by not anticipating them sufficiently.

There is much to be said about “relationships” and even a cursory perusal of business, human development, networking, and social bookshelves reveal that there are many experts who can teach relationship as a learned skill. I am not one of those experts and suspect that relationships are as much a cultivated art form as a technology. Yet without doubt, those who have mastered them have an enviable history of successful and gratifying collaborations in many facets of their professional lives. Some of us are still learning.

A few lessons:

1. It is hard to fake a relationship. Short-term courtesies and niceties can ease cooperation, but won’t sustain a relationship.
2. Are there commonalities underlying the professional relationship? Does your professional life, or organizational life, or foundation have defined values and programs that align with your collaborator? If not, a personal relationship might allow a joint project, but a longer time institutional relationship much harder.
3. When differences arise, have you honestly tried to determine how much of it is personal and how much of it is organizational? Not every difference of opinion is personal, and not every alignment is organizational.
4. Relationships, of any sort, require investments of listening, time, and care – over time.
5. Personal professional relationships often transcend organizational boundaries, but in the absence of the personal component, organizational partnerships rarely last beyond a project.
6. Broken relationships can be fixed, but it is very very very hard to do so and require a willingness on both sides.

What would you add to this list?

Two “No’s” and a “Maybe” – Some Thoughts for the NFP Sector

May 18th, 2015

Richard Marker

Most Wise Philanthropy postings are targeted to those of us on the funder side of the table. This one is quite explicitly targeted to those of you who seek money, not give it. Hopefully these observations from this side will be helpful to you. Funders are invited to eavesdrop.

1. No #1: When Funders Say NO.

“No” really does mean “No.” I have heard many fundraising experts lead workshops for those anxious to learn how to be better and more effective development professionals. There seems to be a mantra among such experts: tell those newbies: “No is not no,” they say; “it is only the beginning of a conversation.”

I cannot know for sure what they all mean by that advice, but it is really bad advice. Funders, especially foundation funders, are not engaging in a game. Funders today are sophisticated and make decisions based on a whole range of considerations. There is neither time nor inclination to say no as a teaser, or as a way to see if the fundraiser comes back with a better offer. By the time a decision is rendered, it reflects all sorts of reviews of data, other information, balancing of requests, and best judgment. It may not be the judgment or decision an organization wants to hear, but it is a real decision.

It is fair, of course, to ask a funder if there is anything to learn or even if there is interest in follow up in the future. A foundation or individual funder may very well choose to give very useful information about the possibility of future connections. [You will notice I am not using the word “relationship” – another word which often misleads those seeking funds; see below for more on that.]

More often than those seeking funds would like to believe, there really isn’t anything more to know beyond a “no.” There might have been so many legitimately compelling proposals that a board or staff did a virtual coin toss. There may have been a number of grants already made to your region, state, city, organization, field had yours been higher in the docket, you might have been chosen, but that region, state, city, organization, field is filled. There may have been a contentious discussion about the proposal just before yours leaving the decision makers in a crabby mood. Who knows? A program officer or a family member may or may not choose to share that with you – it is a level of transparency about which there is not yet consensus in our field.

Moreover, how one asks if there is something more to discuss can make all the difference. I am sure none of you readers would ever do what some actually did when I was heading a foundation – couple of examples: some would not ask for more information but angrily demand to meet directly with the board to plead for a review of their case. It is impossible, they argued, that the board would reject them if they really understood their proposal. That demand surely endeared them to everyone on the funder side. [Not!]

Or, to take another real case: after repeated ‘no’s, the chief development officer of an organization asked to meet with me. He said that he certainly understood that we were not funding what they had asked for but he still wanted to meet. When he came to the office, I repeated what I had told him in writing and verbally: that his organization seemed perfectly fine but way outside the priorities and funding parameters of the foundation. It turned out, after repeating this a dozen times, he explicitly said, “I came here so that I can learn from you how we can get funding from this foundation. Why won’t you help me?”

Now, to be sure, in some cases a funder will indeed encourage further discussion. If so, go for it [asking, of course, how and when the funder recommends doing so.] But, in general, those seeking funds should assume that a funder means what he or she says. And if it is NO, please take our word for it.

2. No #2: When You should say NO.

The funder-grantee relationship is a power imbalance. Despite the current popularity of the word “partner”, most of those are not partnerships at all. As we discussed above, a funder says “yes” or “no” to a request for funds. Only sometimes is there a shared planning process between them that rises to the level of partnership.

Not infrequently, though, a funder’s priorities are not fully aligned with those of an organization. That misalignment might be quite reasonably based on carefully honed priorities and interests of a funder, or simply based on a funder following a fad. Sometimes an organization does many things but a funder is only interested in supporting one. Some funders act as if the grantmaking process is a negotiation – you ask for $X, that request must be inflated so we’ll offer $Y. Sometimes a funder has his/her/its own idea of what an organization should do which doesn’t align with what the organization itself thinks is ideal/a priority/ in its own best interest.

It is at this moment when the balancing begins. If a multi-service organization already serves both early childhood and senior adults, the organization may prefer to receive money for early childhood, but isn’t compromising its values by accepting a grant for senior adults. If it doesn’t already serve senior adults or have a well developed plan to do so, a grant in that area is way off the mark. Just because it is offered doesn’t mean you should say yes; in fact you probably should say no.

If a program or facility or project is really going to cost the $X dollars you asked for, and anything less compromises the program, guarantees a lower quality outcome, or will have an impact on other things you do, say “no.” Funders don’t want to fund failure or mediocrity if they can help it. Make that clear. Just because a funder offers it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. If a lower amount won’t jeopardize the quality of a program, just its scale, it makes sense to accept what is offered and not to begin an unhelpful negotiation. Just make sure that you and the funder have a mutual understanding of the likely outcome when the funds are accepted.

Accepting funds for a facility is a special challenge. So many non-profit facilities were built over the last 60 years with no deferred maintenance funds, with horrendous long-term results, that it should be a mandate that nothing gets built without accompanying funds for upkeep – or a credible plan for those funds that doesn’t jeopardize the core work of the organization. No funders who think about it want a facility bearing their name to look shoddy 5 years down the road. Organizations hungry for capital funds do themselves a long-term favor saying no to any major gift which will prove onerous years hence.

Funders want their money to accomplish something, to receive deserved recognition for their funding priorities, and to bask in the success of the organizations they fund. If those organizations are not willing to articulate what will allow them to accomplish something, truly honor the intent of the funder’s funding priority, and to be successful in their efforts, funders will make mistakes, organizations will resent them, and mediocrity will be the result.

The overwhelming majority of funders will welcome this discussion. The worst – and I am not belittling this outcome – is that the funder doesn’t change the priority, condition, or amount. In the short run, it may be a big price to pay to say “no”; in the long run, the “no” will almost certainly strengthen respect for your organization and sharpen its focus to do what you wish to do.

3. The Maybe: Do Relationships Matter?

“It’s all about relationships.” You have heard this one, too, I am sure. And it is sort of true, but…. A funding relationship isn’t about having someone buy us a cup of coffee or lunch. It isn’t about getting to know us for the sake of getting to know us. Believe it or not, most funders can afford their own lunch and already have plenty of friends to hang out with. No, a funding relationship starts with shared funding interests. If there are no shared funding interests, move on. Let me repeat that: If there is no shared funding interest, move on. Nothing annoys funders more than those hoping or trying to insinuate themselves into their schedule – for the purpose of cultivating a relationship, with the hope that someday that relationship will yield a gift.

If there is a shared interest, then building a relationship does matter. Then the tricky part: with whom? If a funder is interested in the totality of an organization, he or she may wish to deal directly with the CEO, or if the gift is sufficiently large, the Board Chair. Or a funder with an interest in a particular project or field of interest may wish to develop a relationship with the staff specialist working on that project or in that field of interest. Even if a development professional has been the one to make a successful pitch, it doesn’t mean that a funder is interested in being continually cultivated or managed by the fundraising pro. Or maybe it does. It is these fine tunings that can make or break the “relationship.”

This is especially true after a grant or gift has been made. Often a development pro is charged with being the relationship officer. But if a funder wants the primary relationship to be with a department chair or field expert, the smartest thing the development officer can do is facilitate that connection and get out of the way.

Over the years, I have been rebuked by chief development officers on this. They tell me that it is their job, or that program staff don’t know how to talk to funders, or that I might misunderstand the data as presented by direct service workers who don’t have the full institutional picture. I guess that they perceive that I am not smart enough to know what to listen for or how to understand what people are telling me. Guess what? In those situations there was no relationship – and no continuing funding.

The smartest thing an organization receiving funds can do is to ask what a funder expects, how they want things to move forward, and with whom. If the funder’s desire isn’t reasonable [e.g., a $500 gift to a university doesn’t typically qualify one for board consideration; a $1,000 contribution is not likely to warrant a building naming or a press conference], as stated in #2 above, an organization should say no. But if it is a matter of managing the relationship such as whom to talk to, how often there should be site visits, if there should be deliverables at the end or along the way, the lead should be taken by a funder, and modified, as necessary by the recipient. That is a funding relationship that makes sense.

A word to funder eavesdroppers: This doesn’t exempt those of us on the funder side from good practice in a relationship. In fact, when we conceptualized the NYU Academy 13 years ago, one of the competences identified by the field was good interpersonal relations. Good organizational and funding relationships take two sides. There needs to be appropriate responsiveness on the side of the grantee and appropriate expectation and expression on the side of the funder. A difficult or unreasonable or power-driven funder is likely to get highly filtered reports, carefully scripted interactions, and kept away from staff who would feel intruded upon. It is important to remember that even a very generous gift does not transform us into owners or supervisors, or give us unfettered access to anyone and everyone whenever we want. Non-profits have a valid interest in drawing appropriate boundaries, and we have an ethical responsibility to be responsible funders in making sure the relationship is healthy and constructive.

At the end of the day, people make relationships and not organizations. If built on appropriate shared interests, openness and mutual understanding of risks, potential, and culture, a funder-grantee relationship can make a tremendous difference – to both.