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#283 – How to Endear Yourself to a Funder… Not!

June 15th, 2017

Richard Marker

This week alone, I attended four different events where both funders and organizational leaders were present. I report this so that no one [except, perhaps, those few about whom I am writing] will be able to figure out who this is about or even at which events what I am about to describe occurred.

Putting funders and organizational leaders in the same room has wonderful benefits. For funders to make good decisions, we need to find settings, other than grant proposals and site visits, to learn what is going on. Moreover, being in a larger setting makes it easier to get a sense of field wide developments, compare different methodologies and approaches, and contrast what are still innovations with evidence based projects, and all of this independent of the pressing need to make funding decisions.

Such settings also create the opportunity for direct communication. The very chance for informal and corridor connection can enable safe interchange and allow the development of authentic “relationships” based on common interests. When a funder/potential grantee only meet in the context of submitting or considering a grant, that is, by definition, an uneven and loaded relationship. When meetings happen outside of that lopsided interaction, it is always possible that a different kind of shared experience can emerge.

At the same time, that intimacy has a risk. It means that those who want funds feel that they now have direct access and can make their pitch without the structured gateways of a grant request. There is, alas, the potential for a trespass; for someone who wants funding, it too often unleashes the worst fundraising instincts.

These examples from this week:

• A funder spoke on a panel and, in his/her presentation spoke about how uncomfortable s/he is often made by those who want funds from the family foundation. S/he made explicitly clear that they do not accept unsolicited proposals and had trepidations about even sitting on the panel because of the experience of being overwhelmed by folks asking for money. Sure, enough, immediately afterwards, people lined up to tell their story and to give proposals as if the public words were simply teases. [The speaker told me privately afterwards that it reinforced why he/she typically turns down these kinds of requests to speak.]

• Someone whom I had never met approached me. The very first – and only -words he said “are you a funder? I only want to meet funders.” How do you think I replied?

• I was talking to an old friend who happens to be the CEO of a prominent foundation. While we were speaking, someone who heads a ngo/nfp approached, interrupted and immediately launched into a very aggressive pitch about why the foundation should be funding them. The foundation CEO kept trying to end the conversation and walked away. The petitioner didn’t stop and kept following her/him.

Those of us on the funding side are well acquainted with all of this. We know that we are walking dollar or euro signs. We know that anytime we walk into a room, someone or several someones will find an occasion to say “hmm, let me tell you about my organization/project/cause…” In my case, because I advise and teach many funders and foundations, they often go further and ask if I can give them a list of people they can approach – or to whom I can introduce them.

We are used to this and those of us who have been in this field for a long time learn different ways of dealing with it. It goes with the territory. But…

It never endears the petitioner to us. It never develops the pseudo relationship the fund-seeker desires. And the likelihood of it ever yielding funding is so minuscule that it is surely not worth the effort.

There are many, many legitimate needs in this world. And, sadly, the list grows and the needs grow. Most of those who deliver services and therefore ask for funds are working tirelessly to address those needs. Most are correct that they need more support.

For many, they look at the net worth of a funder or the corpus of a foundation and say to themselves that those funders can certainly afford to give money to their cause or organization.

Funders agree that there are many more legitimate needs than any funder can or should fund. Most, though, have given serious thought to our priorities and determined where we can use our resources most effectively, and in ways consistent with our own values and priorities. That is hard work. And it can be painful to not fund something that cries out for funding. Those seeking funds may not agree with our priorities and wish that we would change our minds. [When I was CEO of a foundation, there were many times when those who didn’t get funded would call angrily to request or even demand a meeting with the board to reconsider. They were convinced that the decision was because no one told their story properly.]

Please take funders at our words: we know our role and the vast majority of us try to play fair, are sympathetic and caring, and want to use precious resources wisely and thoughtfully. Not taking us at our word or respecting our guidelines or violating our space doesn’t help your cause, and doesn’t make us more sympathetic.

We know it is hard. But please, take a deep breath and think about how you are coming across. Those moments of possible connection that may lead to relationship don’t happen all the time; try not to blow them.

281 Why our Field Requires a Professional Credential; It is Long Overdue

June 7th, 2017

Richard Marker

This plea is not new. I have been pleading for our field to develop a professional credential for 15 years. It is time to make this plea once again.

I do so now without the risk of a perception of a conflict of interest. Previously, I know that some readers thought that I was simply hawking the NYU grantmaking certificate program in which I was a part time faculty member. However, while NYU still offers a limited number of funder education courses for foundation professionals, last year it discontinued all of its certificate programs. Similarly, I teach part time in the University of Pennsylvania’s CHIP funder executive education program, an outstanding offering primarily for principals, trustees, and foundation CEO’s. CHIP hopes to institute a high-end certificate in the future, but not yet – so in this brief window, I hope my urging won’t be dismissed as self-serving.

The request is built on a simple premise. Foundation professionals and philanthropy advisors have no professional barrier to entry – other than being hired – and that is simply wrong.

It is a bit shocking: we are responsible for making or advising decisions worth billions of dollars every year. Our cumulative decisions influence an entire sector. Our voices can have profound impact on public policy. Yet all that is necessary for us to do that is to get hired.

That is not to say that none are well equipped to do the work that we do. Quite a few are. Some are hired because of distinctive content expertise. Some are hired because they know the principals. Some are hired because they interview well. Some are hired because they are in the right place at the right time. All of these are good and representative reasons why people get hired.

But none are required to demonstrate that they have a certification or credential or a license or a degree in the grantmaking field. It is exceedingly rare that a newly employed professional is expected to fill that lacuna as a condition of employment.

Fundraisers are expected to have credentials and in some States to be registered. Lawyers, doctors, wealth advisors, psychologists, teachers, even barbers are required to get a credential – and in most cases to demonstrate that they have earned continuing education credits annually. But not foundation professionals or philanthropy advisors.

The tradition of self-authentication in our field is hardly new. When I entered the field, one regularly heard “if you’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.” There was a certain legitimacy to that description at the time: the field was far less developed than it is today; it was comprised of a much smaller number of professionals; interest in philanthropy education and articulation of best practices was still years away. Most important, foundations typically reflected the “culture” of the founder or primary funders. That doesn’t mean that they were correct in dismissing standards and credentials, only that we can understand why.

Less defensible was the more recent response of the founder of an organization of consultants and advisors in our field when I informed her that their members were eligible for a discount at the then thriving NYU Academy for Funder Education. Her exact words were “why would our members need courses? They already have clients.” I hope that I need not explain to readers why I was flabbergasted by that comment. No doubt, many of their members are well educated as well as busy, and bring very respectable, if not credentialed, knowledge to their work. But I know many of their members and, sadly, more than a few could sorely use the education a credential would represent. One would hope that the current leaders of that organization are more sympathetic to the need for an educated membership.

In 2002, when NYU gave me the pro-bono go-ahead to help conceptualize what a certificate curriculum for funders should look like, I consulted with the Council on Foundations, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, the Forum of Regional Associations, and what was then known as the Association of Small Foundations. That curriculum has served the field well for over 15 years, taught upwards of 2000 funders from 26 nations, and did produce a professional level certificate, but that certificate was neither well known, nor widely adopted. In retrospect, it needed not only the conceptualizing partnerships and the co-teaching of courses of those four organizations, but also a broader buy-in and mutual ownership. This is a call to start over.

Realistically, there are two pre-conditions to a widely-recognized credential in grantmaking:

1. Employers of professionals in the grantmaking arena would need to respect its value. It need not be a pre-requisite for employment, but a foundation or advisory firm might require that professionals earn the credential within their first 5 years.
2. There would have to be a consensus in the field about what a professional certification would mean. Today, lots of organizations give “certificates” but there is no standard. One can receive a certificate after attending a luncheon, a one-day course, a three-day course, a one-week course, or, as was the case with the defunct NYU Academy, the equivalent of 2+ weeks of course work.

In order to move this ahead, I would urge a convening of those of us interested in developing certification standards, and would be happy to play as active a role as would be helpful. My vision of the curriculum and standards for our field may not be what other foundations and other professionals ultimately decide upon. But without a commitment to compliance it will never be adopted nor taken seriously.

Or, someday, it might be imposed upon us by those with less knowledge of or commitment to our field.

It is time.

280 Diversity on Foundation Boards: If You Aren’t In the Room, You Won’t be in the Next Room

June 2nd, 2017

Richard Marker

The recent survey of the makeup of foundation boards reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy has received a good deal of press, and a good number of comments. The study looked at many of the very largest foundations and who sits on the governing bodies of those institutions. Not so surprisingly, those boards were disproportionately comprised of alumni/ae of a limited number of universities, are disproportionally white males, and they live in a limited number of zip codes.

I doubt many were surprised by the findings. As one who sits on some foundation boards, and has advised many more, there is no question that they are comprised of those whom the leaders already knew. It is especially true among family foundations. After all, whom do you want in the room when family secrets, foibles, and relationships are on display? As we have written about in other settings, it is hard enough to get to reasonable decision making and good behavior under the best of circumstances; if one adds to that the complexity of folks whom you don’t know, or whose background doesn’t allow an easy cultural shorthand, the board room suddenly seems quite crowded.

It is true, as well, for independent foundations. Foundation boards are prestigious, usually deal with amounts of money that can intimidate those of lesser means, and have their own cultures and ethos that can be hard to penetrate for outsiders. Most board members are on multiple boards. They/we take the roles seriously, but not so much that the board interferes with lots of other valued claims on our time and social obligations.

Diversity has another challenge as well. Even when trustees acknowledge the statistical imbalance [racial, ethnic, gender, geographic] on their own board, it doesn’t mean that a board member is enthusiastic about ceding one’s own seat at the table.

So even if there is not purposeful bias or intention, the reality of foundation boards makes resolution of this quite problematic. It fits into the category of “if you are not in the room, you won’t be in the next room”.

This post is not about me, but my personal experience may be illustrative of the dynamic underlying this. For a good deal of my career, I was active and fairly visible within a particular societal subgroup. I was neither the most famous nor the most influential, but I was an insider, knew most of the decision-makers and they knew me [indeed, during the time I was CEO of an influential foundation, I guess I was a decision-maker myself]. Of course, I wasn’t on every board, or taskforce, or asked to speak at every conference nor serve as a consultant to every project. But I was in the mix, and no one had to ask, “who’s he?” when my name came up, and sure enough, I spoke widely, sat on lots of boards, and consulted extensively.

For the last 15+ years, my career has taken me far afield from that group. Every once in a while, I am at a conference or an event and see folks from that earlier part of my life. Often they will ask, “why weren’t you a speaker at such and such an event?”, or “why weren’t you the consultant for that project?”… I learned that the answer is quite simple. As time has gone by, the new decision makers don’t know me, have never heard me speak, never been the beneficiaries of my advisory/consultancy work. Whom had they worked with or invited to speak? Those whom they knew or had heard recently. I wasn’t in those rooms so I wasn’t invited to be in the next room. [So that there is no misunderstanding, my current world has many more rooms, and I am flattered to be asked to speak and advise in many other settings.]

Thus, given my experience as an insider who became an outsider quite quickly, should it be a surprise when those who have never been insiders are not on short-lists for foundation boards? When the selection committees turn to search firms, they are given prominent names – often the same names every other search yields. It may yield some tokenistic diversity, but does not address the point of the study.

This entire question raises three important points:

1. Does diversity on foundation boards really matter?
2. If yes, how does one rectify this in a sustainable, non-tokenistic way?
3. If not, how does one build authentic connections with stakeholders so that decisions are made beyond the social walls?

1. While the Chronicle article makes a compelling case, not everyone agrees. Indeed, I once had a public panel disagreement with a woman of a minority ethnic/ immigrant background who had herself transcended these boundaries and was functioning within the inner circles of a prominent foundation. She felt strongly that who was inside, and what their gilded circumstances may be are irrelevant to grantees. All that matters are that the foundation make good decisions and that recipients get their money. My own view, which I have expressed in these pages in the past, is that those of us who are funders need pay close attention to optics. It is far too easy to reinforce a patronizing classism without intending to do so.

Any of us who have sat long-term on boards of any sort can attest to how easy it is to assume a status quo ante when questions arise. The value of newcomers is that they raise good questions; a healthy organization honors those questions and is willing to rethink their facile answers. How much more so is this the case when the newcomers are not already social friends or peers with the existing board members.

In many ways, this is an extension of the transparency/glass pocket issue. How open should a private foundation’s decision process be? Once a foundation has met the philanthro-ethics standards of conflict of interest, and the legal requirements of reporting all grants, is there an ethical or moral obligation to tell more? Should there be a “best practice” that mandates more?

This is not straightforward, but I certainly believe that, minimally, every foundation owes it to itself, its stakeholders, its community, and our field to undertake a serious conversation about how it wishes to respond to these questions.

2. If the foundation decides that its governance should reflect greater diversity, how does one transcend simple tokenism? After all, to find a single qualified representative of a particular gender/racial/ethnic/national origin/sexual orientation is not so difficult. To have a sustainable system for doing so requires a very different commitment. Here are a few sample approaches:

a. Encourage foundation board members to sit on boards of other organizations serving diverse subgroups, particularly those with diverse stakeholder boards. This means that they will get to know potential board members over time, observed them in action, and learn to appreciate the larger issues that the organization addresses.
b. Have regular convenings with diverse groups, including those who may not be fully at home in these leadership settings. There are different vocabularies, priorities, leadership structures, and histories that can inform our own thinking. It is likely to lead to a respect for bringing diversity into the foundation inner circle.
c. Create social settings for more informal interactions. This is easier said than done for folks who are accustomed to socializing only with their peer groups, but is easier done than many think. [There are methods we can share if any reader is interested.] d. Develop a feeder system so that board selection and succession has a broader base.
e. [Please suggest additional methods to be added at a later updated posting.]

3. As acknowledged in #1 above, many foundations will never achieve a meaningful diversity on the board to reflect their stakeholders. That doesn’t exempt us from finding ways to reinforce our need for our grantmaking to be authentic, responsive, and transformative. How does one bridge those divides [and there are many]?

a. The proposals a, b, c in #2 above apply here as well.
b. Create grants subcommittees with seats reserved for diverse stakeholder populations. Even if they are not Trustees, their positions will be heard and felt.
c. Convene fellow funders to sponsor opportunities for stakeholder groups to speak of the issues before them. These sessions should focus on both larger policy and systemic issues as well as the day-in day-out challenges of serving at risk populations.
d. Serve as advocates and door openers with policy makers in government. Foundation leaders have access. Professionals in direct service organizations often don’t.
e. [please suggest additional methods to be added at a later updated posting.]

Private foundations are in a unique position, legally and functionally. We have philanthro-ethical obligations to set standards of behavior and sensitivity that exceed the legal requirements. Especially in this time of cynicism toward all institutions, the extreme divide between the few haves and the many haven’ts, and the need for rebuilding trust in civil society, we should do no less.

#278 Why “Next-Gen” Misses the Point

May 25th, 2017

Richard Marker

Early in the aughts – remember those days? – I coined the expression: “to those of you under 40, we are guests in your century.”

Given how this century has gone recently, I am not sure it is much of a compliment, but it continues to be true. The ways we communicate and the ways we don’t communicate; the ways in which we express our identity, the ways in which we create and dissolve virtual communities; the ways in which we get our information; the institutions we trust and distrust; the ways in which we pay for things, or choose to reserve seats in restaurants, or make travel plans… It isn’t as if those of us who are older don’t do those things. We do, and for many if not most of us, our way of navigating through our daily lives looks much the same as it does for those younger, but we had to learn these things as outsiders. Younger folks are natives, and are all born with evolutionary advanced texting thumbs.

However, much of the philanthropy world still talks as if the younger folks, the proverbial “next-gen,” is still too young to sit at the grown-up table. Many struggle with how to acculturate their progeny to do things the way their parents and grandparents do them. [In a previous post, I related the story of being the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of a prestigious international organization. At that meeting, the organization honored their top young leaders – among them, a 50-year-old retiree with dot-com wealth and a 48-year-old mayor. Too bad they weren’t deemed ready to join the grown-ups.]

There is something not quite right when people who have demonstrated leadership roles in other settings, have successful careers, in many cases are well along raising their own children, are still considered to be too young for the decision-making circle of the family. Too often they are all lopped together as “next gens”.

Moreover, many professionals in our field talk about people born in different decades as if they are all the same. While it may be culturally relevant what bands people remember, where they were at different historic moments, what technology was new or old, and so forth, nevertheless people of the same generation can still have differing life experiences, values, politics, and aspirations. Not all offspring think the same way, not all siblings think the same way, and not all members of different generations think differently. Who is to say which generation is the source of the wealth? I once had a participant in a week-long course for philanthropists who, whenever asked about why she was participating, said that she was on the board of her uncle’s foundation. After the course was over, she confided that, in fact, the foundation was based on wealth she had accumulated as a young person and she had invited her uncle to sit on her foundation board. She is far from the only person, nor does she represent the only foundation I have known for whom the generational involvement in philanthropy goes more than one direction.

So, you can see why I reject the facile lumping of all succession questions as “next gen”. Family dynamics very rarely fit neatly into such predetermined boxes. Any of us who deal with family philanthropy on a regular basis, and most members of families, can certainly attest to that.

Succession is a very real and challenging issue that goes way beyond generational issues. Do spouses count? In-laws? Steps? Common-laws? Outsiders? Exes?

All too often foundation by-laws, created by well-intentioned family attorneys, only anticipate a single generation out, or don’t factor in the inevitable various permutations of our age. What may or may not make sense for all of those of a single generation may be counterproductive a generation hence.

And, let’s face it, there is nothing more loaded than having to make a policy decision when the effected persons are sitting right there. Ad personam decision-making, even if benign, is still personal.

Those of us in the family philanthropy field typically urge a family to address succession questions of inclusion as early as possible. Processes for engagement and empowerment are always adaptable and can be updated, but including or excluding family members after the fact is not pleasant.

There is no one size fits all – about generations, enfranchisement, succession, or the dynamics that inform decisions. There are, though, methods to help make constructive decisions, and properly applied, can make all the difference.

#269 Philanthropy’s Role When Facts Don’t Matter

May 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

You may think that this will be another politically motivated post, but it isn’t, although some extrapolation to that arena will not be hard to find.

It is motivated by a recent conversation with a well-educated and successful person that left me a bit aghast. To protect the identity, and frankly to avoid an extraneous discussion, I will provide no additional info on the person or the topic. Suffice it to say that it was a subject about which I have a good deal of knowledge and the other person had only opinion. While there is room for some interpretation about this subject, the essential facts were and are clear. But the person with whom I was speaking dismissed those facts as wrong, for no other reason than his/her opinion differed. There were no alternative facts offered, simply that I am wrong.

I confess that I was on the verge of losing my cool but another person present intervened and insisted we change the subject. I have lost a good deal of respect for this other person but concur that there is little to be gained by re-opening the subject – ever.

In the case of that discussion, there isn’t that much at stake for the world at large. But over the last year, we have seen and many of us have participated in conversations like that where much is at stake. For example, whether or not you like HRC or supported her candidacy, the overt and outrageous lies spread about her were unconscionable. And as in the previous case, when presented with demonstrable facts to the contrary, often dismissed as “well, that is your opinion.”

A more frightening and far reaching issue has to do with environmental concerns of climate change and human responsibility to address them. Every individual has the right to choose his or her own truths, and, within limits, can choose to live within them. But not when those “truths” are counter to facts, and those personal “truths” are a danger to us all. For whatever the motivations, there are those who not only dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus as “opinion” but actively lobby for public policies that are harmful to us and to the world at large. That is not hyperbole and it should not be political.

This little sampling is reflective of a genuine dilemma of these early decades of this century. How one educates, how one legislates, and how one governs, and how one adjudicates are all at stake. Deep seated cynicism about whether institutions, any institutions, really care about people; skepticism about what is said by anyone in a time when self-selected media choices reinforce the anarchy of available information; an unmistakable erosion of civil discourse, and respect for the other reflecting a destructive dystopian world view, and more.

Sadly, I am sure that every reader is more than able to add an ample litany of real life examples. The question is what to do about it.

The stakes are high. The stakes are political to be sure, but not only political. They reflect very deep seated challenges to the state of knowledge, and civility.

It is not a matter of simple education about facts. Whatever one thinks of the current president, his supporters voted for him and many continue to support him despite facts that historically would have rendered political leaders in the USA unfit.

Should we yield and say that we are in a post-fact era, that all truth is relative, and admit to parallel universes within which we find our own support if not comfort? While that approach would work in my personal example above, it hardly suffices when policies and decisions need be made that impact all of us.

One of philanthropy’s privileges is advocacy. Without getting into the nuanced legal differences between advocacy and lobbying, there is no dispute that advocacy for ideas is legal and legitimate. How does one do that, though, when the classic ways of doing so have been to emphasize facts: facts about health care, education, racism, food insecurity, equal access, and much more that used to make clear which policies are more credible and actionable. But what do we do when those very facts are dismissed as opinion, not convenient to an alternative truth?

It seems that there are several mutually inclusive roles for philanthropy in the face of a cynical universe- all of which emerge authentically from our historic and ascribed roles, though none is a panacea in our current reality:

1. We must continue to be society’s risk capital. Only by doing so do we create viable and demonstrable facts on the ground so that when political ethos allows, there will be evidence-based solutions.
2. We must continue to advocate. We must learn to do so in less than friendly media, in modes that are not easy for us. To speak to our friends and fellow travelers can be restorative, but not transformative. If we are to change minds and save lives, we must learn how to communicate with our foes. Philanthropy can provide some of the resources and settings to do that.
3. We must support pedagogy that teaches how to mediate among the anarchy of information. It is shocking how few are taught how to identify “fake news”, to sift through the name calling on social media, to know that one’s personal truth may be ok for you but they don’t become actionable facts, that a civil society must have parameters of acceptable discourse, behavior, and accountability, to know that civil liberties are not the whim of a given political moment but guarantees to all – including to those with views unpopular to the party in charge. And more.
4. We must align our investment strategies with our funding priorities so that all of our resources are directed to public good.
5. We must find partners to provide support to fragile organizations and vulnerable people during a time when continuing removal of such support seems to be politically expedient.
6. We must be the independent beacons of hope in a time of dystopian darkness.

Philanthropy alone cannot restore reason or civility, but we can be the constant and consistent presence that sustains its possibility for the time when it again will define us. And such a time will surely come again.

#268 Can One be a Truly Independent Advisor/Consultant and an Outspoken Advocate at the Same Time?

May 19th, 2017

Richard Marker

#268 Can one be a truly independent advisor/consultant and an outspoken advocate at the same time?

Someone asked me that question this week. They noted that I am far from reluctant to express my political positions on Facebook, Twitter, and even here, and at the same time, as a philanthropy advisor, pride myself on my independence. S/he went to on to ask the derivative question? If I can comfortably advise funders without imposing my own politics, why couldn’t I do fundraising for one organization while I am advising a funder of another? If I insist on the perception of independence in one, why not the other?

Two fair questions: Let me respond to them in reverse order.

Why I won’t do fundraising?

The easy answer is that I don’t know how. Fundraising isn’t my expertise and I don’t take any professional contracts in areas I consider beyond my expertise.

The less easy answer: I consider that it crosses a philanthro-ethics line. For me, [but, I recognize, not for everyone in our field] I don’t see how one can be paid to advise funders and at the same time be paid to raise money for organizations that want their money. Funders wants to be confident that my responses to their priorities, questions and decision-making are never self-serving. The minute I am paid to raise money, that question is inevitable. And even recusal is a problem because it means that the funder is getting less of me than he/she has a right to expect. Since I don’t raise money, I cannot speak from experience but I suspect an organization paying a development consultant would want to know that the consultant is prepared to open doors to any funder with potential interest.

That answer might not be persuasive to everyone, and as I acknowledge above, there are many honest and trustworthy consultants who feel no professional ethical conflict in having clients on both sides of the table.

Of course, then, how do I answer the presenting question of this post – how do I articulate political convictions and at the same time serve as an independent advisor to clients?

First, my political positions are unequivocally my own. I am not paid to say them and I don’t work for any organization. Anyone who pretends not to have a political position is either fooling him or herself, or trying to fool others, well-meaning though they may be. In the present environment, I feel that there is a mandate to articulate and advocate for things one believes in.

Secondly, I have had a good deal of experience differentiating what is opinion with what isn’t. Two of my proudest moments as a public speaker on philanthropy underscored that: in one case, the ED of an organization that invited me to give a major talk told me that an attendee said, “I don’t agree with his politics but I could listen to him all day long.” In another similar situation several years later, an attendee said, “I could do without his political positions, but when is he speaking again? – I would love to sign up!” It is awfully difficult to be a speaker on the topic of the intersection of public policy and private philanthropy without some personal perspective seeping in.

Thirdly, when I work with funders, especially families, it is inevitable that diverse opinions emerge, sometimes about politics, sometimes about succession, sometimes about the direction of how to run the foundation, and more. I agree with some more than others. But I wouldn’t be very successful for very long if I led the discussion with an articulation of my own personal points of view rather than helping the family or foundation come to conclusions that will work for them long after I walk out the door.

I suspect that not everyone is persuaded by my answers to either of the questions. More to the point, as I said above, many first-rate professionals find no ethical challenge following different practices. Even though I adhere to a policy of an impenetrable wall between those who want money and those who give it, many firms feel that their own self-discipline, and disclosure to clients obviates the challenge.

As for the other question: It is gratifying that many have applauded my outspoken stances these past months. Some have commented that, even knowing me for many years, they never realized I felt so strongly. At the same time, some have criticized me for that very outspokenness. If they have said that to me, I am quite sure that, for others, I have rendered myself out of the running for some valuable speaking invitations or advisory contracts. So be it; it is the literal price to pay. The times and the challenges facing our nation and the world do not allow for silence. I do hope that my voice is raised responsibly, and words used for good, and that they add to a constructive public discourse.

After all, what is philanthropy for if not to make our world safer and saner – even if doing so doesn’t please everyone?

#267 Airline Travesty, Health Care Tragedy, Philanthropy Advocacy

May 15th, 2017

Richard Marker

You will notice that this post has a number before the title. In order to make it easier to find them, all posts will now have an identifying number reflecting the order in which they have been published. This is the 267th in the Wise Philanthropy blog series.

Rarely has it been so difficult for those of us who comment on philanthropy matters to catch our breath. After all, public policy issues that impact philanthropy, public trust and public well-being are unfolding at a whiplash pace. And, at the same time, philanthropy practice, grantmaking decisions, and support for those who deliver services need to go on regardless of the whirlwind. In this post, I will comment on the larger mandate that drives our field; I will return to our “practice” in subsequent posts.

The mounting numbers of incidents on airlines are, in many ways, a metaphor for our current state of national mental health. Riding on an airplane requires a lot of people to behave in predictable ways. Cooped up in a cabin, often for many hours, we are a transient community fully dependent on civility and mutual acceptance. There are rules and roles – and they have an impact on all of us. We all know that we must suspend our autonomy and some range of choices for the duration. Our very lives depend on it.

Objectively, we all know this. Why then the surge of behaviors that have created chaos in the air, on the ground, among passengers and among crew? What is going on?

The answers tell us a lot about larger issues that we all need to be addressing today:

1. When the profit motive encourages airlines to cram as many people as possible into seats with too little space, it depersonalizes and antagonizes – among both passengers and crew.
2. The divide between the haves [i.e. first class] and the have-nots [everyone else] is very evident. Especially on transcontinental and on international flights, the haves have mini-suites with beds, champagne, real dishes, restricted restrooms and more. Some airlines provide pajamas. These luxuries are visible to all including those who are cramped in the rear. [I am not trying to be superior – I admit to having been a frequent beneficiary of these luxuries]. But, as in society as a whole, the divide is more stark and more striking than ever before.
3. The nickel and dime-ing business model only builds resentment. An advertised price is only a base price as change fees, wait list fees, seating fees, baggage fees, and who knows what other fees, can radically increase the costs of any flight. Late night humorists have mocked these practices, but, that cannot mask the sense of resentment many travelers feel.

How is this a metaphor? If citizens feel that their options are limited, that their relative worth is diminished, that their part of the contract is being discounted by new costs beyond their control, the fragile compact that holds us together becomes unraveled. Fellow travelers are competitors for limited space; crew become representative of a heartless power structure that dehumanizes; our financial standing sits in more and more uncomfortable spaces. And privatization means that entire communities are no longer served by any public transportation.

What if the airlines were to go back to a time when they were public utilities and not merely money machines? It would lead to all sorts of changes when they have a responsibility to treat all with dignity and not impecunity. And, let us remember, that was possible because we had a government that believed that access to travel should be as universal as possible and the conditions surrounding them needed to be sensitive to the human experience, and subject to serious oversight.

Which, in turn, brings us to the current disastrous and tragic congressional proposal for a health care system guaranteed to bring financial ruin to and challenge the health care of millions. What cynicism! What misanthropy!

This is not the place to unpack or reiterate the many words already devoted to that evidently flawed plan. It is clear, though, that the authors, and half of congress, have bought into the same mentality that privatized the airline industry, no matter what the cost is to the public. Sure there are some short term advantages for a very few, but long term disadvantages to the most vulnerable and many others.

Objective analysts have concluded that a single payer option would work best for almost everyone, would reduce costs for most, and need not mandate the public health system so feared and maligned. But that isn’t going to happen very quickly in the United States in 2017. Which means that there needs to be an alternative system that starts with human needs and relative affordability. [Yes, we know that was the goal of the Affordability Care Act and that helped many millions. And, yes, we know that there were still some gaps that needed to be closed.] Any alternative system that starts with the premise of asking how little to cover rather than how to provide a rational, just, and accessible system for all is simply putting us all in that metaphoric closed container in the sky. Those who can afford the champagne in the front won’t feel too much of the pressure. The rest will wonder why it is so crowded and unfriendly back there.

A society is measured by how it cares for its most vulnerable, not by how low its taxes can go. Our current public transportation systems and our health care systems are a reflection of our values and priorities.

Which brings us to philanthropy advocacy. Yes, this is our time. This is the time when our independence, our ability to take risks, our commitment to those without a voice, our manifest compassion, and our understanding of systemic fixes matter. A lot.

We know that a society that perpetuates economic inequity, that punishes the vulnerable, that perpetuates, even institutionalizes, disenfranchisement, is fragile. Very fragile. We know that the anger and resentment and anomie and hopelessness that such disempowerment bring about can only lead to the unraveling of behavior in the public square and in private space. We know that there will be prices to pay, and lives to be lost.

No, we in philanthropy cannot solve these matters alone; they are too systemic and require inter-sector responses. But we can take the lead.

These are not normal times and the body politic and the public weal are very fragile. Our voices, our advocacy, and our passions are required, now more than ever before.

#266 Intersectionality…and Other Jargon in the Philanthropy Sector – Updated

March 29th, 2017

Richard Marker

We recently spoke with an NFP executive who was becoming skeptical about the value of doing a strategy process. He had been charged by a funder with updating his organization’s strategy. He had several models in front of him, had heard about strategic planning, strategic framing, and who knows what other formulations. Each one has a meaning, and different consultants have their own approaches. Many methodologies can be effective, but none are fully coherent without explanations, and not all are appropriate in every context. Developing strategies for foundations, philanthropists, non-profits, or private businesses can be a very useful exercise but the words “strategic planning” by themselves are jargon. No wonder this executive was a bit of a skeptic.

I suspect that most would agree that the winner of the jargon word of the decade is “impact.” Seven or eight years ago I taught the first of several advanced week-long courses for funders and foundation professionals on “impact philanthropy.” I invited a variety of experts in the field to co-present. I knew that they each had very different approaches from one another, but, at the time, each was quite sure that his or her own understanding was the definitive one. Investment models, outcomes, theories of change, PRI’s, policy advocacy – all used the term “impact”. No wonder there are so many conferences and webinars and courses and newsletters all telling about “Impact.” When you need that many conferences just to explain what you mean, that is jargon.

There are all sorts of words that we hear in our field: metrics, evidence based, disruption, catalytic, bandwidth, partnership, so many more…. Each can be misunderstood, and each can have connotations that only the cognoscenti can fully comprehend. When that is the case, why not try to speak in non jargonese? Why not try English [or whatever language you actually use where you live and work]?

Which brings us to “intersectionality”. It is the word of the year. I have heard it in complex and sophisticated syntax articulated by philanthropoids far and wide.

For some, it is a political statement defining the interwoven nature of how the powerful maintain control over the powerless. It posits that if one doesn’t address this inequity as a totality, one is a perpetrator of injustice. Not honoring any single part of that complex whole disrespects, the entirety.

For others, the word is more descriptive and less proscriptive. It suggests that to address and redress systemic issues, one must incorporate an understanding of how different sectors, and subsectors are integrated. No single sector, government, business, NGO/NFP, or philanthropist has the capability by itself to solve these issues, and no single topic within those systemic issues is sufficient.

The challenge of the word, of course, is that unless one explains what one means, it is not clear. Moreover, and even more significant for our field, it in no way makes clear what one actually does with either interpretation to make a difference.

By the way, “making a difference” is also jargon. It is appealing for funders but by itself is not very descriptive even though we hear it all the time.

As a regular attendee at philanthropy conferences and wealth management briefings, I see how easy it is for practitioners to slip into facile shorthand often incomprehensible to those not well traveled in these fields. And as a quondam professor of philanthropy, I see how easy it is for academics to slip into that special brand of polysyllabic and grandiloquent discourse only used in the Ivory Tower. [I hope you got that last sentence was self-mocking.]

I have been guilty of both and have been called on them. I have learned the hard way.

That is why we work hard to make ourselves understood, our ideas coherent and our approach pragmatic. There is no reason that one needs to indulge in jargon to communicate complex ideas. And there is every reason to affirm that clear communication helps our grantees, our clients, our colleagues, and ultimately our field as a whole.


After this was first published, some of the feedback showed that some readers thought that I was suggesting that “jargon” means the absence of substantive meaning. Quite the contrary: jargon emerges because it becomes a shorthand for ideas that matter. To take but two examples:

My own professional work is as a strategist for philanthropists and foundations: surely I believe that it has substance. I do, though, urge that people explain what we/they mean by that, what methodologies we and others use, and how it applies in a particular context.

Similarly, “impact” has acquired a series of useful meanings. The High Impact methodology that the Penn CHIP program has developed can be a very productive tool for funders who want to choose an optimal way to bring about change in a particular field. On the hand, foundations use impact investment strategies as a tool to make financial resources more effectively align with their mission and raison d’etre. Here too there are a number of applied approaches that are changing the way philanthropic dollars are invested.

The point of the piece is that the words that become jargon assume that the meanings are obvious. All too often they aren’t and the use of the jargon can obfuscate. Thus the plea for less jargon and more clarity.

When is Righteous Indignation Right?

March 25th, 2017

Richard Marker

Most of us know the aphorism by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In an international interreligious meeting I co-chaired several years ago, leaders of 6 religions – 3 Abrahamic and 3 Eastern unpacked the concepts of Justice and Forgiveness for 3 days. For almost 2 of the 3 days, we continued to reach a roadblock. The leaders from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh traditions could not understand the Abraham insistence that evil must be repudiated with justice as a precondition for peace. Their traditions emphasize that the individual must learn to make peace with her/his lot as the precondition for personal peace.

Finally, a Hindu Swami, a University President from India, realized the dilemma. When the Westerners talked about “justice”, the Easterners heard “retribution.” For Western religion, evil and injustice represent flaws in behavior, and by extension, the human universe, that must be corrected. The human condition is too interwoven for injustice to prevail. But for the Easterners, for whom there is already an essential one-ness to the universe even if inscrutable, acceptance is the only legitimate starting path forward. Retribution, as they heard it, was not built on ultimate acceptance but ultimate inflict of pain on another – repeating a destructive cycle.

That insight of how our very language can create barriers to understanding opened up real avenues of communication: for example, such statements as “who is wealthy? One who is happy with her/his lot” from the rabbinic literature had counterparts in the Christian and Muslim literature as well. The sentiment that emotional well-being is best achieved when we learn to control our tendency for envy and jealousy was a shared response. Once we defined justice to include emotional well-being, it wasn’t a huge leap to find common ground with our Eastern counterparts.

Much more interesting was our challenge to acceptance of life’s lot seen in the Eastern Traditions. After all, were they really suggesting that we should accept slavery, human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, and more? Aren’t there limits? Isn’t there a time when righteous indignation, repudiation, and even activism for social justice take precedence?

Indeed, they concurred and unpacked elements in their traditions that too demand equity and humane behavior, and indeed repudiation.

So, we found common ground, and the rest, as they say, is commentary.

All of this resounds these days when I hear some people try to justify proposed public policies the effect of which punish the poor, the ill, the infirm, the elderly, the at-risk, the unemployed, the under-educated, those who live near contaminated water, and those of minority status, legal or otherwise. In fact, pretty much everyone except the rich.

The implicit philosophy of these public policies, couched in the rhetoric of individual choice, is that you, we, are on our own. Too bad. Get over it. Make your peace with it because that is your lot in life now.

But I come from a tradition that says it need not be, as do most religious traditions. It is not simply an option, but a mandate to see that the hungry are fed and the at risk are cared for. The underlying theologies may differ, but every world religious tradition affirms that responsibility. Societies are commanded to build institutions to guarantee that compassion is not simply the whim of the moment but a guarantee.

Now let it be clear, I am not suggesting that we institutionalize any religious tradition in American society. Nor that every insight from every religion aligns with the needs of pluralistic post-Modern societies. But I am suggesting that there is much to learn from world religions in alleviating human suffering and risk.

In this era of cynicism and facile dehumanization, I read Niebuhr’s aphorism as a challenge to be courageous, especially now. Most certainly this is the time for righteous indignation in the face of injustice, inequity, cruelty, mean-ness, dishonesty, and the absence of integrity. Our many religious traditions and American constitutional values and ethics subscribe to a culture of justice or fairness.

This is not the time for serenity; it is not a serene time. it is the time to change that which MUST be changed; it is the time for courage.

When is a Disaster a Disaster? Philanthropic Priorities in Our New Reality

March 20th, 2017

Richard Marker

It is always gratifying when the press is interested in my opinions, and this has been one of those times. The question from several well-known, and some not so well known, periodicals has been whether the huge amount of financial support for organizations such as Planned Parenthood and ACLU and other organizations under attack by the current administration represents a long-term change.

It is a reasonable question. There has indeed been a surge in support for these organizations as challenges to civil liberties for all, including the press, the courts, reproductive rights, religious minorities, and immigrants have come fast, furious, and frontally. These unprecedented attacks have led to unprecedented support to well respected organizations committed to support for and sustaining the values under attack. The questions the journalists have asked me and others is if this represents a major and sustainable change in giving behaviors and priorities.

I suspect that you will find my response a bit of a hedge. If one looks at historic trends, one sees that there are predictable times when giving to particular causes surges: around floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, terror events, and other major news makers where human suffering is visible and manifest. In most cases, that surge subsides quickly and people return to their prior giving practices . The impulse is compassionate, humane, and heartfelt but, as the news cycle moves on to a new headline, the giving does as well. [This is not to say that the needs don’t continue; many in the philanthropy world have learned to “keep our powder dry” for 1 or 2 years to see what needs continue after the public compassion phase ebbs.]

Is the current fierce and angry reaction to the shocking and negatively disruptive public policies of this administration equivalent to a natural disaster response? Or will people tire of being angry and outraged and choose to hibernate until this chilling winter of discontent is over in 2 or 4 years? Will those who responded immediately with substantial new financial support trust that others are able to advocate and fund the organizations that support civil society – without them?

Will these challenges to values we hold dear continue to mobilize and motivate? Will those new funders feel these attacks so personally or empathetically that they will continue to support civil liberties, women’s rights, environmental sustainability, immigrant rights, economic equity, racial justice, electoral fairness?

Or, to muddy the water even more, with the recent release of the preliminary budget by the administration, will funders now argue that even long time funding must be viewed as disaster funding? If core safety net, basic science, arts and humanities, early childhood, social security and Medicare are all being eliminated or radically reduced, some may argue that the most responsible choice is to make sure that educational and cultural and disaster management and early childhood and food for the elderly are sustained, through direct funding, even at the cost of vital advocacy.

One wonders: Have we entered a late 60’s style activism that ultimately will save our nation- mobilizing masses for a long enough time to create palpable change but not necessarily smoothly? Many may have political and philanthropic preferences, but, to return to the question the journalists have asked, in truth, no one knows for sure.