November 15th, 2017
I recently had the pleasure of meeting a very respected colleague in our philanthropy field. He and I are contemporaries, but I daresay he is better known than I, a detail of some relevance to this post.
Our conversation veered into observations about developments in and the state of our field. For many reasons it is growing, there is both consolidation and expansion at the same time, there are those pushing philanthropic giving into more assertive spaces, there is a recognition of both the expansive capacity and the severe limits of what philanthropy can accomplish, and, for both of us, a sense that not everything that is purported to be new really is.
About that last point: Both of us have been in the field long enough to find others “discovering” things that we had, ourselves, done or written about a long time ago. We are both bemused that the eureka discoveries are simply rediscovering what so many have said before. There is an admitted ambivalence in seeing these things: we could constantly post corrective references to our own writings and accomplishments – to remind folks of our contributions to the field of philanthropy learning, or, alternatively we can accept that everyone needs to learn philanthropy practice in his or her own way, at her or his own pace, and it is ok for them to claim discovery.
As a quondam university educator, I learned very early on, that, for students, if they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. It mattered not that a year or 5 or 10 or 20 years earlier, other students had planned the same activity, studied the same text, written the same insights. The very process of learning those same things is indispensable to education. Otherwise, I came to understand, one would have a hard time justifying teaching Aristotle very year! So as tempting as it was to tell the students what their predecessors did wrong or right, and it would have been so much more efficient to have done so, it would have been a counter-productive disempowerment. It took more of my time and patience, but the long-time result was far superior.
So, as I said, my better-known colleague and I have learned to smile knowingly, hold our tongues, and keep silent as others take bows for their “innovations” and “insights.” Probably as it should be.
But perhaps not always. It is one thing for individuals to learn anew what comprise best practices, how not to abuse the power imbalance, and the challenge of saying “no” to so many. But it is something quite different to find a shocking absence of institutional memory among the many organizations and affinity groups in our field. One of the costs of the absence of institutional memory is forgetting that our field matters, and always has. We are responsible, collectively, for billions of dollars, an entire sector, and a great deal of public policy. We are not the sole supporters, the sole influences, and the sole determiners of public policy. But we do matter.
Institutional memory should be in play when challenges to the public weal are prevalent; when civility has become a rare and precious commodity in public discourse; when public policy is set by the highest bidder. Only our field has the independence to call it out. We have the independence – and I would say the responsibility – to advocate for decency, support for the most vulnerable, the interconnectedness of our policies with our funding priorities. This is not a new role for philanthropy: most of the patriarchs [yes, most but certainly not all were men] in our field understood this. Whatever their motivations and personal histories, they came to understand that polity requires civility, that civility requires equity, and that equity is only possible with the financial resources to make it so.
Institutional memory would have saved the time and money needed to hold summits to address what many have said before, what many have said long before my colleague and I said these things. Our advocacy and involvement in public policy are not new, and not only brought about by the current fragile state of our democracy, but have always been there. And we have paid a price as many have been reluctant or slow to speak, advocate, connect the dots, and recognize our unique mandate.
As funders, we engage in our own strategies, struggle with our own decisions, look for tools to enhance the impact of our philanthropic dollars. Maybe not easy, exactly, but absorbing and demanding. Sufficiently so that we may lose sight that we are always, by definition, playing in a larger sphere. Our decisions don’t only decide what worthy group or organization or city gets funded, but also what doesn’t. And writ large, our decisions say something important about what our public policies should look like, and which sector should have which responsibilities.
Advocacy matters. Why? Because, while philanthropy does matter, a lot, it never has and never will have the resources to solve systemic problems alone. Indeed, there is no systemic challenge that does not require a public policy commitment. It is wrong to allow politicians to deflect responsibility to the voluntary sector to solve such problems, and it is equally wrong for our sector to choose to ignore our mandate to keep educating political forces of their responsibility to the citizenry.
As one who has been educating philanthropists and foundation folk for almost 2 decades, I am never surprised that those in our field have to learn and re-learn basics of the laws [they differ depending where in the world one lives], ethics, and best practices that make us thoughtful and responsible funders. That is why we teach what we do, and it helps guarantee that our field continues to develop standards of excellence, and behaviors built on humility and an understanding of our power imbalance.
But best practices are not the same as understanding the uniqueness of our potential in shaping a larger society based on values. For that, we need to understand our roles at a more basic and profound level. We matter because we are advocating by our decisions, whether we intend to or not. We owe it to ourselves, our field, and our communities to do so with greater intention.
October 24th, 2017
Many of you know that we have recently relocated our primary residence. After 20 years in New York City, we are now official residents of the Washington, DC area. There are many lessons for philanthropy to contemplate that emerge from such a move, most notably about the significance of “place”. I will share those thoughts in due course.
This substance of this post, though, was a surprise. First a bit of background:
Our tale of selling our coop apartment in New York is worthy of a New Yorker article, but since it is a tale told so often before by other New York buyers and sellers, not worth your time for the re-telling. Except for one part….
Because of how long the process was taking, we decided not to sign a lease on a rental apartment in the DC area until it was certain that we were actually moving. When, after about 5 months of waiting, the co-op board finally approved the buyer of our shares, we arranged for our move. But, an apartment in our chosen building would not be ready for several more weeks. We and our belongings were out of New York, but they and we were not yet ready to be somewhere else.
So, because of very accommodating in-laws, we moved into the guest room we had used for the last 20 years when visiting the 3 and now 4 generations of the family in the area. When people would ask about our circumstances, I would jokingly answer “we are homeless- but at a very high level.” Little did I know that it wasn’t a joke, or rather the joke was on us and we are still trying to get it cleared up.
This was not to be our legal or long-term residence so we rented a post office box so that we wouldn’t have to change addresses multiple times.
The first clue that there was a problem was when I received a note that my Medicare Part D was cancelled. I received the notice 5 days after the fact – the notice had been sent only 2 days prior to the cancellation.
No, the cancellation was not because, somehow, I had missed paying a bill that might have gotten waylaid during the move – I pre-pay for the full year. It was because we had moved out of state and I was no longer eligible for the plan I was on. With 2 days’ notice!
Of course, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that we were not yet legal residents anywhere else so I could not enroll in a replacement plan immediately. Many hours on the phone eventually got me enrolled but not without a gap in coverage. Any prescription medications I needed would have to be bought at full price. [Fortunately, and reassuringly, the same was not true for Medicare or our supplementary plan. The address change was seamless and there was no gap in service. Think about that as evidence of the merit of a single payer system.] Yes, we can afford the extra cost, but what if we couldn’t? If it took me several hours just to change Part D prescription plans, just imagine the impact on someone with fewer resources, less education, and less ability to sit on the phone being transferred from person to person to person to person. I assume all will be well, but we are still waiting for the new card.
Back to our story, part 2:
We have used the same bank for many years. We have had checking, savings, credit cards, mortgages, cd’s etc. with this bank and, for most of the time, at the same branch.
Imagine our surprise when I received a letter saying that the accounts were going to be frozen since the bank does not allow a post office box as our official address. We would have to show up in person to a bank branch to keep our accounts active. You recall that we rented a post office box so that we would have a place to receive mail.[Aside: The correspondence was addressed only to me even though ALL of our accounts are joint accounts. Hard to imagine that such sexism still exists in 2017.]
Remember, this arrived when we did not have a legal residence. This next part of this story shows the great irony of our circumstances. When I did immediately go to the local branch office, and I explained the situation and showed the letter, I was ushered into the branch manager’s office. When I asked what we should do, she checked our accounts. Immediately she became a sales person, trying to upsell us to a more exclusive service of the bank. When I said that that wasn’t the reason for the visit and I wanted to make sure that our accounts were active, she said we could use our temporary residence instead of the post office. That is a real house, with a real address, and we were really living there, and she promised that it was now taken care of. But she insisted that I not leave before meeting the bankers responsible for the higher level of service.
I said I would shake the hands of the other bankers on the way out. Done… or so I thought.
Sure enough, we soon got another letter telling us that our account was about to be frozen. [also addressed only to me!] It was sent to the address in New York from which we had moved several weeks earlier, so it too arrived after the relevant date. Fortunately, someone in the branch in NY where we had banked for almost 20 years noticed that something was awry and had the courtesy to call us – 2 hours before the account was to be frozen. The banker in NY said that there was no record of my visit to the bank office where we had moved and no record of the temporary residence. In other words, the above-mentioned branch manager was so concerned about up-selling that she didn’t even process the main reason for the visit. [There is still detritus from this but I’ll spare you.] We were 2 hours from having no access to our money.
Let’s be clear. We don’t need anyone’s sympathy or support. We now do have a legal residence and we have the resources to get this all taken care of. But suppose we didn’t. If we, with hugely positive credit ratings, a chunk of money in the bank, and at least a 2-decade relationship with a single bank, were at risk of having no access to our accounts, what about those who really are homeless? Or who don’t have the luxury of a banker calling them to figure out why something seems wrong so that bills can actually get paid?
Homelessness is no joke. We were not really homeless, but we discovered how easy it is to quickly lose important services most of us take for granted when we didn’t have a legal residence in our name. Imagine finding the time and the resources to function when that is your daily reality and plenty of additional “take for granted” services are not available. And imagine how hard it would be to ever get beyond homelessness once truly homeless. It isn’t pretty.
Foundations and other funders who address poverty already know all of this. We know all about the systemic and derivative issues of what homeless means to individuals and to communities. I have always understood that conceptually, but for the first time, I can feel just a little bit of it personally.
August 26th, 2017
There are many very fine and helpful postings from other organizations regarding appropriate philanthropic and charitable responses to Hurricane Harvey, our most recent natural disaster. This brief post is to underscore a very few key points:
1. Fund established organizations: This is NOT the time to be creative. There are many nationally and locally recognized and vetted organizations with credibility on the ground. If you would like to provide immediate support, please support those organizations. If you are not sure, please check with BBB, your local United Way or Red Cross, or your local community foundation to verify the legitimacy of those organizations.
2. Do NOT give to phone or on-line solicitations unless you know the people and organizations personally. While disasters often bring out the very best in some people, it also can bring out the worst. Scammers thrive on the heartfelt compassion we all feel.
3. Foundations that are not already funding on the ground programs in the impacted region would be advised to KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY and wait to see what the ongoing needs will be. We have learned in the past that many needs emerge in the months and even years after any disaster. Individuals are usually on to the next issue but foundations have the ability to have a longer-term perspective.
August 22nd, 2017
Two recent WisePhilanthropy.com posts have led a number of readers to raise a question about the examples I gave. These readers are quite sure they know exactly to whom I am referring in each of them. [When you read B below you will see that they might be partially correct, but, even then, only partially.]
Why don’t I publicly identify my clients or the foundations and philanthropists to whom I refer? After all, it is quite customary for many bloggers and philanthropy advisory firms to name their clients, sometimes in a descriptive way and sometimes in a self-congratulatory way but always proudly. And some business advisors tell me that I am leaving money on the table by not showing that the foundation and philanthropy field takes us seriously and uses our advising, speaking, and teaching expertise.
Why am I so strict about this?
There is a simple answer, a more nuanced one, and a very practical one:
A. The simple answer is that I want to respect the confidentiality of all of my clients and students. Many of the matters discussed during my advisory work, or even in classes for philanthropists, are deeply personal, reflect very sensitive family or foundation issues, and are confided to me on the assumption that it goes no further. And that can apply both to those well-known and those not so well known.
If I were to publicly identify those clients who would have no problem being identified, it might make future clients or students reluctant to share, fearing that I would identify them as well. By being so absolute about it, it obviates the possibility of their wondering. [Obviously, if a potential client needs a reference, we are happy to connect them privately.]
B. The more nuanced answer is that I try hard not to give any clearly identifying information in any example I use or any case that I teach. In fact, almost every example I give is an amalgam of real people and real cases but rarely is so unique to a particular individual that there is only one possible reference. If one names names, it is far too easy for cases to be dismissed as listeners or readers try to unpack distinctive personality characteristics. I want the underlying philanthropy message to come across, not the quirks or voyeuristic enticements of bold face names. [This actually works: I once had to take a deep breath when I saw that a family I was largely using as an unnamed example in my presentation was sitting in the audience. Afterwards they approached me to tell me that they could really relate to that example and had a lot to learn from it. Go figure.]
C. The final reason I am so restrictive in naming names is a very practical one. In my line of work, almost everyone I meet assumes that I can help them get funding for a favorite project, or at least introduce them to “my clients” who would be thrilled to learn of their causes. Most of them are very valid and worthy, no doubt, but that isn’t my role and it isn’t why we are hired. Were we to become random advocates, we would lose our ability to advise and the confidence that we function fully independently. Just imagine how many more requests would be coming our way if we listed the funders and foundations around the world with which we have had a connection.[Full disclosure, there are a very, very limited number of times I make direct reference to individuals or foundations in my teaching. When that happens, it is because the philanthropist or foundation has already gone public with that case and my role in it. Even then, that name will never appear in our website or anything I write.]
As stated above, many if not most of my colleagues in the field are less absolutist in the way they apply discretion and confidentiality. My view of the demands of philanthro-ethics is that I don’t name names. However, I do not want any reader to assume that I am suggesting that anyone who has a different standard is unethical, indiscreet, unprofessional, or otherwise compromising their roles with clients. They simply have a different “best practice” understanding.
For those of you who asked directly, and those who may have been wondering, I hope this clarification helps.
August 19th, 2017
If there is a time to be outspoken, it is now. For those of you who are not old enough to remember the 60’s, this is your historical moment to not sit on the sidelines. Most of us who do remember are with you and many of us are already out there. One cannot, must not, sit silently as human rights and guarantees are being challenged and eroded. And one must not sit silently as voices of hate – such as the neo-Nazis, the KKK, the Alt-Right, and frighteningly, their heretofore hidden fellow travelers, feel emboldened enough by the one who holds the presidency of the USA – fill our streets and dominate our public consciousness.
My political views are not new or surprising, and I am not sure that I have much to add to the millions of words currently being written and shouted.
I do, though, want to share some thoughts about the professional implications of non-neutrality.
It is gratifying that CEO’s are becoming outspoken on behalf of justice, or more accurately, in rejection of a certain kind of evil. But, if you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, your personal risks are minimal and your golden parachute is always close at hand if necessary.
My very worthy and visionary colleague, Aaron Dorfman the CEO of NCRP, has challenged foundations to not hide behind neutrality at this time. The lines have been drawn and for many there is no viable middle. I agree with him but here too there is little real risk for foundations to take positions. The independence foundations cherish provides a protective moat for risk and reputational challenges.
But if you are an employee or a self-employed professional, you must weigh the very real risks of being outspoken. It takes more thought and courage to do so if you are dependent on the next paycheck or contract to pay your rent or exorbitant medical insurance bill.
A few years ago, following an annual meeting of the National Speakers Association [of which I am a proud, long-time member], there was criticism of one plenary speaker whose views were considered too “political.” [He told his own life story, part of which is of a Japanese American sent to an internment camp during WWII.] I took great exception to their objections, saying that those of us who earn our living with words have an obligation to show how words can help shape learning and public discourse. The NSA told me that they wouldn’t publish my comments on the internal blog of the association since they don’t want to encourage political statements. I am still at a loss of what I said then that was political, but there you go.
In talking to NSA colleagues, many agreed with me, but many more agreed with the NSA, projecting that if they were outspoken in their social and political views, they might lose business.
And it can be true. Indeed, this very summer an invitation to speak was withdrawn when I asked the sponsors about the parameters of what they wanted addressed. Since the talk was to be about the intersection of public policy and private philanthropy, it seemed an apt question. I learned that they were very enthusiastic about addressing this question retrospectively, but it would be too political for their group to speak of that topic in the present. It was easier for them to “rearrange their schedule” than to risk the fallout.
Speaking openly doesn’t always have negative consequences. As a professional speaker, there have certainly been times when my political positions have been positively received, and even commented upon by attendees. I have previously reported on the time when a funder, after listening to my talk at a philanthropy conference, told the CEO of that organization that he didn’t agree with my politics but he could listen to me all day long.
Let it be clear that these choices have been mine, and reflect only personal risks I have been willing to take… at least at this stage of my career when I am self-employed and represent no one but myself.
However, it wasn’t always so. I had never been conscious of any self-censorship in my public presentations, but I must have done so for many years without any self-awareness. When my career evolved from senior executive roles of organizations and a foundation to being self-employed, many who had known me for a very long time told me that they never knew that I felt as strongly as I do. They had assumed that my politics and views were far more mainstream and conventional. [I know that some of that has to do with how I dress, but still…]
If I am comfortable taking professional or financial risks today, it is quite obvious I was risk averse before. In retrospect I wonder: was that necessary to do/keep my job or had I internalized an excessive risk aversion? The relevance of this question is because we are at a moment when there is a screaming need for strong and courageous voices. These voices are needed not only when joining with thousands of others in rallies; there is a kind of safety in that. But in more private settings or in writings, when hearing racism, Islam-hatred, anti-Semitism, should we make our displeasure known even at the risk of social disruption? And what about public endorsements or speaking out in writing?
If one is an employee or leader of a non-profit organization, one risks the wrath of a boss or key funders whose views may be different. If one chooses to keep silent in order to keep a job, is that excessive risk aversion or sane self-preservation? What ethics or best practices should inform work place policies of protecting opinionated speech? And should there be limits – such as insisting that “hate speech” is never welcome?
This is a tumultuous time and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The challenges to our national equilibrium are profound and pervasive. There may have been a time, a time now long gone, when one could restrict one’s views to our news channel choices and our social networking peer group. No more.
There are two places where the spill over takes place: in the public square and in the workplace. The public square is now a potentially dangerous place. Not always, not everywhere, but enough. Most, I think, would still choose to rally and protest, but without any naïve assumption that it will always be safe.
But what about the literal and figurative workplace? Traditionally, political discourse was considered off limits. Debate was discouraged, socially proscribed, and a trespass on the environment where many spend more time than any other place in their lives. Should those limits still apply? Are there new best practices? Are there new guidelines that acknowledge that if the CEO can speak publicly, why shouldn’t line employee?
It is one thing for me, as I am ensconced in the latter stages of my professional life with all the autonomy I could want, to choose to risk losing a speaking gig or a philanthropy advisory contract. Shame on me if I am not willing to take those kinds of risks to speak against hatred and for a just society.
Not everyone is at that stage of life or career. We must find ways to make it safe for others, in this time where everyone is judged and expressing one’s views is not with impunity, to do so safely. Our nation has been put at great risk; it is not the time to withdraw into a protective cocoon. But we need to find ways to make it safe to fly free.
August 16th, 2017
Why the “Fund for Success” Series:
To “fund success” is not the same as to “fund for success.” Many funders are very risk averse, and are only are willing to fund the most proven, evidence based projects, or the most prestigious institutions. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with that approach, that is not what is intended by “fund for success.” It means that funders should assess what would be necessary for the highest likelihood of a program or project or organization to succeed. One should look at financial and non-financial requirements, fund what is realistically adequate and not simply fits a funding formula, and create an atmosphere of openness with grantees that guarantees that realistic information is shared in a timely fashion. The purpose is not to avoid failure; that inevitably happens sometimes. But it shouldn’t happen because a funder’s funding practice makes success impossible.
In a previous post [#288], we discussed a case where a seemingly overly generous and undisciplined funder gave so much without concomitant planning that the project ultimately failed. Admittedly, that is not the typical case.
More typical is the case of funders who give too little.
There are lots of reasons for that:
1. A funder or a foundation may assume that all proposal requests are padded so giving less than what is asked for is simply “part of the game.” Regrettably it is often true. In the process of automatically discounting every request, many projects end up getting less than they realistically need to have a fighting chance to succeed. In other words, being punished for playing it straight. We have written elsewhere about this vicious cycle and that only funders can make it safe to break this counterproductive practice.
2. A funder and the foundation he/she endowed exhibit a business mindset and not a philanthropic one In business, a successful negotiation is when you can pay less than the original asking price and still get everything you want. While negotiations are sometimes called for in the philanthropy sector, that approach overlooks the tremendous power imbalance and the reticence of hard pressed non-profits to ever say “no” to a funder. To do so requires courage and conviction, and an awareness that a funder can always walk. Therefore, even when an organization is very aware that a funder is giving less than a project genuinely needs, the organization accepts it anyway. It should not be surprising when the project does not meet its potential, and the grant is money down the drain.
I know that some might take issue with my characterization of the difference between the business and the non-profit sectors. In our field, there are many who would like the non-profit sector to be more business-like in many ways. Perhaps. But here I am speaking of the power imbalance that often presents an uneven playing field and leads otherwise well-run non-profits to accept grants that may not be in their best financial interest.
3. Many funders believe that they should never be on the hook for more than a certain percentage of the cost of a program or project. There is surely some implicit prudence and wisdom in this approach. But too often they leave the grantee high and dry by not providing introductions to other funders, or without the professional capacity to do so, or by requiring restrictive conditions that make fellow funders reluctant to partner. It is one thing to impose a strategic funding model; it is quite another to impose that expectation without providing the human or financial resources to do so. Alas, too often the results are less than stellar.
4. Many experienced funders look at a proposed budget and know up front that it is not realistic. This is particularly true with young organizations or untested programs. Too often a funder will say “that is their problem; maybe they’ll figure it out.” Indeed, they know that the money requested is far too little for the project to reach its potential but since it is what was requested, it is easy to just give that amount. A funder is not doing that organization much of a favor by funding that way. Why not give more than is asked? Or at least provide a supplementary consulting grant to help the organization do more realistic budgeting and planning in the future?
5. Some funders have locked themselves into providing fixed amounts to many organizations. If it is a grant toward unrestricted support and is one of many such grants a recipient organization receives, there is nothing wrong with a fixed dollar grant that is not connected to any specific program. But a fixed grant for a specific project, without careful analysis, may guarantee its mediocrity or even failure. Funders sometimes need to be reminded to have the grantmaking discipline to distinguish between the two kinds of grants. [I am sympathetic; oft-times there are too many requests and not enough time to do due diligence on every request every year, especially among long time grantees. A seemingly good idea from a known entity can make the cut even when careful analysis might have yielded a different funding recommendation.]
6. Money can be stretched only so far. It is really hard to stop funding long time grantees so it is much easier for many funders to keep doing so even at a reduced level when the more constructive response would be to discontinue the grant. Money can be stretched only so far. Funders have a tendency to stretch their funding priorities over time, especially during flush years. But, as we saw in 2008-2009, that doesn’t always continue. Suddenly there are harder decisions. It is really emotionally hard to stop funding long time grantees so it is much easier for many funders to keep doing so even at a reduced level when a healthier response might be to discontinue the grant. [For a “how-to” on exit strategies, please be in touch directly.]
7. NPO’s/NGO’s also have priorities. They are not always the same as those of their funders. Creating a new program focus that doesn’t align with the core competencies or strengths or priorities of the NPO/NGO may satisfy the current [sometimes faddish] interest of a funder, but may be a distraction, or worse. Yes, there are indeed times when funder knows best [sorry about the pun], but insisting on funding something outside the priorities of a grantee should only happen after a serious and mutually respectful discussion. Substantial money may be provided to the new area, but, too often too little is provided for the core operating or infrastructure needs of the implementing organization. Without that infrastructure support, the money given for any new project will almost always be inadequate.
What is common about all of these is that a funder may give too little for a program to have a chance to succeed. In such a case, whatever you give may be too much – that is, insufficiently unhelpful to an organization. In such circumstances, giving too little may actually be too much.
Funding for Success is largely a matter of right-sizing our giving, a challenge for all of us on the funding side. We need to learn not to waste our well-intended and thoughtful grant funding by giving too little to accomplish what we, and our grantees, hope to do.
August 9th, 2017
Why the “Fund for Success” Series
To “fund success” is not the same as to “fund for success.” Many funders are very risk averse, and are only are willing to fund the most proven, evidence based projects, or the most prestigious institutions. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with that approach, that is not what is intended by “fund for success.” It means that funders should assess what would be necessary for the highest likelihood of a program or project or organization to succeed. One should look at financial and non-financial requirements, fund what is realistically adequate and not simply fits a funding formula, and create an atmosphere of openness with grantees that guarantees that realistic information is shared in a timely fashion. The purpose is not to avoid failure; that inevitably happens sometimes. But it shouldn’t happen because a funder’s funding practice makes it impossible to succeed.
During a recent car ride, a client recalled a project by a mutual friend, a well-known philanthropist, that had been a great success for a while but failed ignominiously. He asked what I thought about that project, why it failed, and what might have been done differently.
Enough years have passed since that happened that few readers would know of what we were speaking but since the funder hasn’t given permission to identify him/herself or the project, we’ll keep this piece as vague and general as possible. If you ask, I will neither affirm nor deny that you are correct. In any case, what will matter the most is the lessons learned and not the details.
This funder believed in funding “game changers.” Today we might call them “big bets” or “high impact”. Willing to put substantial money on ideas and see them implemented, the funder thought big, was ambitious and well meaning, and very risk tolerant.
The project in question was a rousing success and perceived by many to be a nationally replicable model. People came from other cities to observe it, it was written about in local and national periodicals, and in its time, it gave great satisfaction to the funder, the foundation, and the staff of the project.
The funder, directly and through the eponymous foundation, gave many millions of dollars to this project every year for a number of years. This was certainly not going to be a project that failed because of a financial shortfall.
Or so it seemed.
As it happened, the funder got a little bored – and was ready to move on to the next “game changer” project. The philanthropist and the foundation staff went to a group of other funders in the field who gave token amounts, largely as a courtesy. They all said, this is X’s project. If they wanted our funding or our involvement, why did they wait until he/she was bored? And besides, what kind of business model is it that it was totally dependent on the bottomless pockets of a single donor?
When it became clear that no other funder or foundation was going to step in, the program and its facility were gifted to another, much older and larger, nonprofit. They, in turn, sold the building, moved the program to a smaller site elsewhere, and radically reduced its ambition and scope. After a couple of years, it quietly and with no fanfare, closed its doors.
It is an oft quoted bon mot that says that success has many parents but failure has only orphans. Here, though, it was easy to point fingers at a very small number of parents: the funder, the funder’s foundation, and the program’s executive director. And as the program was shrinking, moving, and disappearing, there were plenty of fingers pointed at them collectively and individually. Was the funder too ego driven to recognize the need for partners? Were the funder’s foundation people so caught up in taking bows that they didn’t invest their time or resources wisely? Was the executive director blind to the reality that sustainability required a firmer and broader financial base, and actual board governance? Probably a bit of all three.
Might it have been avoided and would that entity still exist if it had followed a wiser path? Well, of course, hindsight is always 20-20 but there are lessons to be learned:
1. There is nothing wrong with being the sole or primary funder, but if one wants the program or project to outlast your funding, it isn’t a very wise or practical long-term strategy.
2. Engaging other current or potential funders late in the day hardly engages them in a commitment. They may be willing to do a favor with a token gift, but rarely a regular or meaningful one.
3. If the goal is to establish longevity for an organization or project, an organization has to plan for a sustainable future from the very beginning. It may be a rougher start, but a better chance of a smoother future. The initial or lead funder’s energy, enthusiasm, and financial willingness do matter and they should be capitalized upon: suggest matching or challenge grants, decreasing or increasing term limited grants, an endowment, capacity building support, to mention just a few examples. But resist sole funding support.
4. Do everything possible to establish a viable governance system for the project. This does not mean a group of sycophants intimidated by a deep pocketed philanthropist who are willing to sit in a token advisory role, but a small group of knowledgeable and thoughtful individuals whose judgement matters.
5. Organizations must be willing to have honest planning with a funder. Yes, that risks losing the grant or gift, but in most cases, it won’t and will likely lead to a more engaged and thoughtful set of decisions. [There is a tremendous difference between “over-reach” when an organization pushes beyond what is reasonable because of an enthusiastic donor vs “under-reach” when the organization knows, up front, that the project cannot succeed with the funds offered but is too intimidated to say “no” to the funder. This issue will be discussed in more detail in blog #289]. In the above-mentioned case, I honestly don’t know whether the professionals were too intimidated or too blinded, but the red flags were evident to anyone who was committed to longevity and sustainability. It certainly appeared from the outside that any attention to that was given much too late in the game.
6. Constant growth can be illusory. It is why metrics alone never tell the full story no matter how impressive they seem. The organization in question undoubtedly had year over year increases in every area of program, but that only represented part of the analytics that should have been on the table. If one asks the wrong questions, one gets the wrong answers – even if those answers are seductively impressive.
7. Open ended funding eliminates the need for planning and budgetary discipline. Because the funder in this case was willing to provide whatever was asked each year, neither the funder nor the relevant professionals were forced to ask the long-term questions that might have extended or saved this otherwise successful project.
Indeed, it was a time when giving too much was not enough.
August 1st, 2017
Some of you may remember the song of that title, and its refrain, from the 80’s. [Professor Google tells me that there have been numerous subsequent recordings so some readers may recall later versions.] In it, a couple faces a key moment in their relationship with the choice that will determine their future together.
I was reminded of that title when listening to a panel at last week’s Family Office Forum in Newport discussing behavior challenges within their own families, and the choices they all made.
The convener of the panel invited three speakers from very different families all of whom had confronted pivotally challenging decisions in their family businesses.
Any of us in this or a related field is well familiar with the dilemma. Some may be family therapists, others family business experts and wealth managers, still others are trust and estate lawyers, and some, like me, family philanthropy advisors. Beneath every transitional moment is the underlying question: “should we stay [together as a family] or should we go [our separate ways]?” Some, but by no means all, of these discussions are filled with distrust or accusation or long histories of dysfunction. But even those families with amicable problem-solving skills ask the question, especially when deciding what to do about subsequent generations and family growth and dispersion.
It need not be said that families are complex and relationships, between and within generations, reflect that complexity. Every decision that has to be made is loaded because every one is personal. [In my work, I try very hard to show that every philanthropy issue that some members of a family are convinced reflect character flaws of other family members is in fact a generic one that has a legitimate philanthropic basis. Doing so doesn’t dissipate years of enmity, but it does allow more reasoned decision making about where to put philanthropic dollars.
The challenge, though, is what happens when that decision-making process stalls, or descends into the morass of unresolved family feelings. Outsiders such as we can often wonder why a founder – or, often, his/her attorney – set up such a self-defeating governance or power structure. But, alas, we too often are brought in long after the foundational structure was established, and we have to help make it work. Or not.
Sometimes the choice is quite stark and the question must be asked: Do you want to stay together or go your separate ways? Asked that directly, many families get themselves together, take deep breaths, and affirm their legacy with a commitment to make it work if at all possible. When a family chooses to accept their mutual decision to remain together, often their hard -held and uncompromising positions dissipate, or at least soften. Many families are pleasantly surprised how much they really do care, how cherished their family legacy is, and how committed they are to future generations.
At such times, they are open to considering different decision-making models, broader enfranchisement, modified structures so that they can achieve, as close as possible, a win-win solution. Not everyone is thrilled, of course, because it usually means that someone or some-ones have to yield some power and give up having controlling claim on the family wealth or philanthropy. But they learn to accept it because they have chosen to stay.
Sometimes the opposite is true. When the existential question is asked directly, it becomes evident that all members of the family feel that it is time to split. Indeed, it can be liberating. They can finally make their own financial decisions, or family engagement decisions, or philanthropy decisions – without having to argue for them or justify them to other branches. It can even serve to reduce tensions and enhance relationships. [One philanthropist I met was proud that he had obviated the necessity to break his foundation up: each of his three offspring had discretionary decision making over 1/3 of the foundation. I am not sure what was gained by that other than face saving.]
The real challenge is when the family legacy is built on a long history of dysfunction or jealousy or favoritism or any number of other causes of unhappiness. [The above-mentioned panel even added a case of illegality.] There may be financial entanglements that make a split more complicated and painful than suffering through their current unhappiness. There may be a public face of the foundation in their community that the family members are unwilling to dishonor. There may be legal requirements that mandate that a foundation must stay together. There may be disagreements about what the right answer to the existential question should be and they cannot even come to a consensus on that. What then?
The short answer: that is when those of us who provide services to families really earn our fees.
The longer answer: here are a number of very practical suggestions about how to make the philanthropy questions a little more manageable, and when appropriate, make the family philanthropy work better. I will leave the financial and family systems questions to other colleagues who have more expertise in those areas.
1. Every member of the family foundation board should have a limited discretionary budget. While not everyone in our field concurs, my experience is that discretionary giving serves to remove private interests from the group decision making docket and provides an incentive to take the family foundation seriously. [Some families extend that privilege to all eligible family members, even those not currently on the foundation board.] This typically works only if the total amount of discretionary giving does not exceed 10-15% of total giving.
2. While there is a place for mission/vision statements in a foundation’s planning process, in families it is often more constructive to have the family commit to a family history, or develop an articulation of values for generations not yet at the table or not yet born. Focusing on what they want their own legacy to be beyond current decision making can create a common purpose that transcends all of the other differences. In the case of one family with which I worked, when the third generation told the spatting second generation that they valued the foundation because it brought them all together every year, the second generation refocused their energy to guarantee those annual all-inclusive gatherings and the on-boarding of that generation. It was a lot more gratifying than the dispiriting disagreements that were characterizing their meetings until then.
3. From the beginning, make sure that professional advisors such as trust and estate lawyers and wealth managers understand that they need to set up structures that work beyond the founder. It is tricky because the founder is their client and there are legal and professional obligations to her/him. But what is left after the founder’s passing is a family. Wills and trusts that don’t empower and recognize that family as an entity that needs to function are all too often counterproductive. There are legitimate desiderata that a founder may have but there are also limits in controlling from the grave. Many of us have had to spend too much time working around structures that simply handcuffed, disempowered, or didn’t adequately anticipate the realities of subsequent generations.
One very frequent, and easy, example might be a founder’s long-time commitment to a particular organization. By requiring that the foundation or donor advised fund give a substantial portion of its annual budget to that organization does not engage subsequent generations very effectively. Why even bother to meet if there are no decisions to make? If a funder is truly committed to an organization, provide an endowment independent of the foundation and let the DAF family advisory group or Foundation be empowered to make its own decisions. [Donor intent should be general enough that it can inform decision making but not overly restrict it.]
4. Recognize that not every philanthropy decision need be a precedent for future giving, and that there are valuable learning curves. Especially in the early years, don’t worry too much about making funding decisions that you come to regret and avoid making big bets too early. Learning from experience may well obviate unnecessary tensions at the grants table.
5. As mentioned above, in families, everything is personal, but not every disagreement reflects a personality flaw. In the overwhelming majority of cases, philanthropy disagreements fall within the generic issues that every funder addresses. Disagreements about risk tolerance or recognition or how involved a funder should or shouldn’t be with a grantee are only some of the valid – and generic – conversations that help fine tune all giving strategies.
6. Philanthropy does not and cannot solve unresolved family issues. I have been asked on several occasions to help families implement a foundation that a parent insisted upon with the aspiration that it would get the family to get along. As suggested above, philanthropy can indeed be a vehicle to give a common focus to family resources, but very rarely does a late-in-life foundation solve years of alienation.
7. If the decision, ultimately, is that nothing seems to work, accept that a division is may not ultimately be a failure but an opportunity for different branches of the family to achieve gratification in their giving, expand their philanthropic footprint, and engage in bettering the world in different ways.
And, who know, perhaps future generations will look at each other and say, “let’s get together.” Hey, it happens!
July 17th, 2017
It has been a great pleasure, and very gratifying indeed, to see that a number of organizations in our field have recently embraced that ethics is a crucial underpinning to responsible grantmaking and philanthropy. Seminars I have conducted on ethics have been popular at many regional association and national conference gatherings for over a dozen years, and have been integral to our education initiatives for over 15. The question is not whether there is something to learn or embrace – that is clear, especially once it is presented. The real issue is why our field needs to be reminded that it matters.
1. Grantmaking behaviors:
Power matters. Yes, there has been a very welcome surge in developing effective and responsible relationships between funders and grantees [sometimes called partners or investments]. The very need to develop good practices, levels of shared honesty and transparency, and respectful interaction are indicators of how hard it is.
We funders have the money. Organizations want and need some of it. That very fact conveys the inherent imbalance. When one has power, it is all too easy to think we are being open, inclusive, accepting, and making it safe. But ask your grantees? [Or better yet, have someone else like CEP or NCRP or firms like ours do so]. Our words as funders may convey openness but our affect often shuts folks down.
Thus, the reason for ethics based practices for dealing with grantees. Matters such as conscious use of self, not penalizing failure, sharing processes openly, paying grantees on the promised schedule, asking for proportionally appropriate information and reporting, and not surprising grantees with new expectations or deliverables are just some of the ground rules for ethical best practices.
The ethical principles underlying this most basic of grantmaking practices is to be aware of the imbalance of power, be straightforward in your dealings, and responsible in your expectations. It is the basis on which honest information will flow to us in ways that allow us to achieve what we wish through our grants and contracts.
2. Internal practices
Abuses of foundation and philanthropic dollars and self-dealing indulgences have dropped significantly over the years. Thank goodness. But that doesn’t mean that it no longer happens. Some people still assume that if their name is on the door, the money is theirs to do with as they wish. Most of us know that it isn’t ours any longer. Oh, we can control how we invest it, where to give grants, who works there, and all sorts of other things. But once we have written that check to a DAF or to a Foundation or irrevocable trust, it isn’t ours. And there are rules and laws that govern all of this. Many funders, even long-term funders, are often surprised by what they didn’t know. That isn’t ethics – that is simply following the rules.
However, upholding the law is less of our issue than upholding its purposes and the ethics behind it. Just because it is legal to hire one’s attorney with lifetime tenure on a foundation board doesn’t make it ethical or good practice. Just because one can employ anyone wishes doesn’t mean it is always the wise or judicious choice. Just because it is legal to sit on the boards of favored grantees doesn’t mean it may not be a violation of conflict of interest best practices. Just because one can conduct a site visit whenever one wishes doesn’t mean that it isn’t an imposition and inappropriate disruption. The reason each of these examples represent an ethical matter is that they are all contextually dependent, and the why and when can make the difference about whether it is the right thing to do or not. Ethics challenges typically represent times when there are competing values that have to be weighed. Sometimes each of these situations is exactly right; other times, they may be absolutely wrong.
The reason it is so crucial for a foundation to go through the discipline of formal conflict of interest statements and practices, investment and spending policies, compensation and reimbursement systems, whistle blower protections is to protect it from itself. No written policy guarantees that everyone will behave ethically or legally. Someone committed to violating these parameters will certainly find ways to do so [and I assure readers that I can give real life examples. But written board endorsed policies make it much less likely that unethical and illegal behavior will occur, especially among those who might do so naively or inadvertently. And it is awfully difficult to insist on good governance from grantees if we aren’t modelling it.
3. Equity and Equitability
At the end of the day, we exist to make a difference. That is not a slogan, it is a mandate. Our good behaviors as discussed in #1 and #2 are important because they signal that we take our charge seriously. That charge is that we have made some part of the world better because of our resources. [Resources are usually money, but they are also influence, advice, participation, empowerment.]
If something is different, it is, by definition, a challenge to the status quo. That change may not necessarily be a challenge to values but it does mean that funders want something to have been changed because of his/her/their funding. Some funders want the change to be to living conditions, or health care, or access to education, or other basic life needs. It is a matter of building or restoring equity. One would like to think that those changes are desired by all and not a challenge to basic values, but, in many countries around the world, the pursuit of equity within a society have been perceived as a challenge to the government policies, systems, and those in power. Indeed, the pursuit of equity is often met with legal and extra-legal challenges. There are places where the third sector is outlawed or severely proscribed. Funders are severely tested when they are defined and perceived as an antagonistic presence rather than a force for good.
In the USA, inequity remains a persistent reality for too many and a national shame. Funders have devoted substantial resources to addressing and redressing that inequity with mixed results. However, in the past, on the whole, the attention to redressing inequity, devoting funds and resources to a more equitable society, has not been defined as at odds with national values. In fact, with a government all too reluctant to do what most other developed countries do, private philanthropy was encouraged to step in and do what our government wouldn’t. [That it was a naïve and impossible expectation was largely recognized by those in our field.] People were in need of housing, health, security, stability, education, food, climate… [name at least one] It was felt that together their needs would be taken care of. Private voluntary philanthropy along with public support would or could solve the problem.
Today, let it be said once again, and it has been said by many others as well, there is a deep mean-spiritedness in the public square. It is not simply about how we speak about one another, although that is shameful. It is not simply about the systematic transfer of wealth from the middle and poor to the rich, although history will surely judge us harshly. It is not simply about the enthusiasm of the ruling party and president to deny responsibility, any responsibility, for the well-being of the citizenry, although that is beneath contempt. Underlying all of this is a profound rejection of the rights and aspirations guaranteed by our Constitution and what it means to be the United States. How else to explain the unconscionable challenge to voters’ rights, the shocking attempts to limit the right of peaceful protest in many states, the overt attempts to intimidate the press, the attempted mockery of the role of law and the judicial system….?
Suddenly those in the philanthropy world are not simply put in the role of providing what government chooses not to, but rather to be a counter force to tendencies in the government to deny legitimacy to those very claims. The pursuit of equity has always been a challenge to the status quo; now the pursuit of equity can easily be understood to be a challenge to the very values that inform the governing party. Equity therefore cannot just be a program priority choice for funders who so choose; it is a mandate for the many who wish their resources to make a difference.
A slight caveat: there is great room for debate about what constitutes support for equity: Does it include the arts or not? Does it stop before the gates of richly endowed universities and museums? Is it wrong to support very local initiatives even if they are less efficient than another larger one? Should there be limits on funding advocacy? Does diversity on boards, committees, and panels constitute tokenism or breakthroughs?
For those of us on the philanthropy side, the commitment to equity and equitability is by no means simple. It requires both good behaviors and gutsy decisions. But complexity does not exempt us. Many, many of us believe that these are not normal times. If so, therefore, as the famous Talmudic dictum reminds us “…if not now, when?”
July 11th, 2017
Readers, students, and clients all know that I urge all funders to take “exit strategies” seriously as an indispensable component of effective grantmaking. A workshop on this subject is a popular unit of our courses and a frequently requested conference presentation.
An attendee of one of those conferences who did not attend my session had heard that I had spoken about exit strategies and contacted me to see if I would share the PPT. While I was open to do so, I learned that her interest was not about exit strategies for their grantmaking but her own. Approaching retirement, she was looking for guidelines to help the foundation she headed have a smooth transition to a successor.
In reviewing my funder exit strategies guidelines, it was clear that only some of those apply to personnel changes, and for those that do, it is only by extrapolation. Nevertheless, I realized, I myself have been in her position, or supervised or advised many others who were transitioning and I wondered if I had learned anything. [One of the advantages of having had 5 careers is that there is a collection of unsystematic but suggestive data worth looking at.]
Some of the following strategies are from the perspective of the one transitioning; others reflect the perspective of the organization. Together they provide a blueprint for effective leadership transitions:
1. There is no perfect time to leave. There is always more to do and something not yet done. Most in the private sector take that for granted; those in the non-for-profit sector often take leadership responsibilities so seriously that we feel a sense of guilt that we haven’t finished, or a sense of annoyance that the leader hasn’t completed some key part of the work. Gradually – probably belatedly – I came to see, if I had finished, the job wouldn’t have been big enough. Projects can finish, organizations rarely do.
2. Everyone is replaceable [with the possible exception of a brand-new startup fully dependent on the creative innovations of a single individual. Much to say about that, but not in this posting.] Those who believe that they are not replaceable are probably leaving the organizations in a needlessly fragile place. Our replacements may not look like us, sound like us, do like us, lead like us, or even dream like us, but they may be exactly the right person to take the organization to levels of accomplishment we hadn’t imagined, or, if we are honest, correct for our weaknesses that had been masked or overlooked by our hard-won successes.
3. Charisma is a Fragile Leadership Style. Therefore, our leadership style, from the very beginning, needs to be committed to building an organization stronger than the one we inherited, with viable bench strength and empowered decision making. I have told this next story previously, but in this context, it is worth re-telling.
Very early in my career, when I was still in grad school in the late 60’s, I had a part-time position on a university campus. I was charged with overseeing and developing a student/faculty group. Lo these many years later it is hard even for me to believe, but I somehow developed a guru leadership style. Groupies followed me around. Big crowds came to our events. It was a different era and I thought I was doing something new and noteworthy. While I was in no way abusive [and decades later, I feel comfortable saying that], it was a very personality centered leadership model that had no sustainability. When I completed my graduate studies and I accepted a prestigious full-time position elsewhere, everything collapsed immediately.
I was crushed. I promised myself that I would never again use a cult of personality leadership style and would always err on the side of empowerment and decentralization. I daresay that in many subsequent leadership roles, that worked.
Leadership too based on the power of one charismatic individual is the most fragile model and least adaptive to successful succession and transition. [When this does exist, and we all know that it does, it typically calls for some sort of interim or transitional system to get an organization on track.]
4. So is a Bureaucratic One. If charismatic style is not ideal, a strictly bureaucratic one isn’t either. An organization needs to be encouraged to reach beyond its grasp and dream beyond its limits. Hopefully, that ethos is ever present, but it certainly needs to be a part of any succession planning. A leader should model that visioning but may not monopolize it. Transition is an ideal time for the articulation of those visions and dreams among all levels of an organization since it can motivate and inform subsequent decision making.
It is tempting for well-run organizations to look to “stay the course” at a time of leadership transition. That sounds easy, but should be adopted with some care. Any leadership change is itself a kind of intervention even when an organization chooses not to change radically or adjust its priorities. Even a well-groomed successor is not a clone and even a successful organization needs to decide if it wants to affirm what it has done or if this is the perfect time to try one of the roads not yet taken.
5. Step Away but Don’t Disappear. This next point calls for a very tricky and delicate balance: when planning to step down, a leader needs to begin stepping away from decisions that will be implemented after the succession. That is not the same, though, as being “out of there” too quickly. Genuine discussions with top board and staff about this question can mark the difference between a smooth and honored transition and one surrounded by a sense of abandonment.
6. Be “Out-going”. Organizations often have genuine and authentic affection for the contributions of their long-time leader. Wouldn’t it be great to have her around a while longer? Maybe give him an office, and an “advisory” role? As a rule, not a great idea. There will be a new leader and that leader needs space, emotionally and physically and organizationally. One would hope that open channels will continue to exist for the times when the new leader seeks advice, but at a distance. Stakeholders at every level should know and see that a change has happened and if the optics and semiotics convey that it may not have, it is very easy to set up a counterproductive dynamic that hampers the new leader and hobbles the organization. [I know that there have been exceptions that have worked very well, but one should enter into those arrangements with great caution and care. The trade-off of the positive of institutional memory vs the negative of controlling from the metaphoric grave can be very real.]
7. Allow Time to be “New.” For all of the planning by the outgoing leader and board, a new person needs time and space to be new. My advice to new professionals, at any level, has always been “you are only new once.” There are questions one can ask, conversations that one can have, and people one can approach with a most open agenda only when one is new. After 6 months or so, it is assumed that the new person has his or her own ideas, opinions, reactions, and recommendations. Moreover, it is often awkward to reach out after 6 months or so and then say, “I have been here for 6 months; sorry we haven’t spoken yet.” Boards need to build in an acceptance of a certain amount of time for that kind of discovery. The outgoing leader needs to resist the temptation to say, “I could have told you, why didn’t you ask me first?” New people need to have their own relationships, their own opinions, and their own business model.
8. Document. Outgoing leaders owe it to their successors and to their organizations to document procedures, time lines, and any other operational matters. The likelihood is that long-time leaders have so internalized many procedures that they may not even think to commit these matters to a memo. But it is not fair to a new executive or the organization you are leaving for them to miss a filing deadline or a key communal meeting or some other “do it all the time” matter because it was so ingrained in you that you didn’t think to document it.
It is often useful for an outgoing leader to sit with a key administrative person and other executives to review the documentation and time lines. [This is not about human resource matters that, of course, need to be handled according to confidential protocols, but are about the operations of an organization.] Having overseen or supervised many transitions, I can attest that errors of omission are the norm, not the exception.
9. Board Role. The board should have a transition committee to oversee the transition. This may or may not be the selection committee or the executive committee. Since any outgoing professional had competing claims and expectations, and any new professional has even more, there needs to be a committee with authority to endorse what is to be done by whom and when, and to run interference with those who have legitimate competing preferences.
10. Public Positioning. A key part of the transition process is what is said to the public and when. Once upon a time it was possible to keep information fully quiet. Today, the number of stakeholders involved in and impacted by any not-for-profit, and the ubiquity of social networking makes such secrecy impossible. Therefore, the public stance of any transition should be planned early and information presented pro-actively. It makes it possible to respect the outgoing leader, obviate any rumors about the transition, and give helpful information about the succession and successor.
This list does not present a time line since situations can vary so widely. Moreover, there are two very specific situations that require special attention and, therefore, require more customized responses to the general recommendations listed in this post. One is when a foundation shifts from donor/family led to professionally directed. The second is when a non-profit organization shifts from being founder directed to a successor. These are rarely straightforward matters of leadership succession and require a very different, and often very sensitive planning process.
Thank you to my unmet foundation colleague for her query on leadership exit strategies. I appreciate that she encouraged me to offer these thoughts. I invite others to add to or fine tune this list of recommendations.