Rahim Kanani, Contributor
3/09/2012 @ 4:03PM
Philanthropy Expert Richard Marker on What Every Donor Needs to Know
In a recent interview with Richard Marker of NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education, we discussed lessons that every funder must internalize, challenges and opportunities facing today’s donor community, and much more.
Richard Marker is co-principal of Wise Philanthropy™, a firm that includes: Marker Goldsmith Philanthropy Advisors, The Wise Philanthropy Institute, and Green Strides Consulting.
Richard Marker, an internationally known expert on philanthropy is the Founder of NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education. The Academy is the oldest and most comprehensive university program teaching funders and philanthropists in the United States. In February 2007, he was recognized with the NYU Excellence in Teaching Award.
Rahim Kanani: As the founder of and senior fellow at NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education, what motivated you to launch such an endeavor in partnership with NYU?
Richard Marker: When I first became EVP of the Bronfman Foundation of the Seagram Company, I approached colleagues for mentoring and advice. The most common answer back then was “you’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.” The longer I was in the field, the more I became convinced that this was a bit arrogant and self-indulgent. [Fortunately, it is a mantra heard less often these days.]
12 years ago, while I was still in that position, I was asked to teach one of the first courses in NYU’s new Center for Philanthropy. The number of funders who enrolled in that first course was so large that it became clear that I was not the only one who felt the need for better education. When Seagram and its foundation closed a year later, I surveyed the players in the field at that time – among them: The Council on Foundations, the Association of Small Foundations, the Forum of Regional Associations, many large and small foundations around the United States, and individual funders. What emerged was a consensus on the “core competencies of grantmaking” – the underlying educational philosophy of what became the Academy. To put it simply, I wanted people to be taught what no one taught me!
Over the years since, funders, trustees, and foundation professionals from around the world have chosen to come to our short-term programs, the longest of which is a full week. We are particularly pleased that we have now moved beyond offering programs only to those very early in their funding experience to more advanced level week-long programs for more senior funders.
Rahim Kanani: As you survey the landscape of global philanthropy today, what are some of the trends grant-makers and grant-recipients should pay particular attention to?
Richard Marker: It would be tempting to list some of the cutting edge approaches such as impact investing, responsive philanthropy, global challenges, technology innovation, and the Giving Pledge. They are important and we do teach these subjects. But in my experience, it is the basics which foster good and thoughtful grantmaking. Some of those basics are:
- Avoid fads. While it is crucial to be aware of trends and emerging approaches, not all new approaches have proven themselves. Nor, more importantly, are they appropriate for every funder.
- Be humble. As funders we must always remember that we are funding the future which, by definition, is uncertain. And grantseekers too are advised to be realistic about what they hope to accomplish.
- Be thoughtful about the role of private philanthropy. At this time, there are tremendous pressures on private philanthropy to replace what government cannot or won’t do. Leaving aside the question of whether there are sufficient resources to do so, a key question is: Is it private philanthropy’s role to do that or is it the role of private philanthropy to be society’s risk capital?
- Be very focused on how to align your interests with your resources.Because so much information is available to everyone, and funders are so aware of international, national, regional, and local needs, it can be overwhelming. All can be justifiably funded, but being aware of what you want to accomplish with your funding can help you use your resources, no matter how large or small, most effectively.
- Fund for success. The challenge for funders is not primarily to see how efficient their grantmaking can be nor to see if they can persuade a grantee to accept less. At the end, both the funder and the grantee want a project or organization to achieve its desired goals. Funders should fund so that they play a key role in helping that happen. Failure can happen, but it shouldn’t be because the funder didn’t provide the support – financial or otherwise – which gave a project its best shot.
- Evaluation. Understand when or even if to evaluate – and which methodologies will give constructive information for the funder or the grantee. “Metrics” sounds desirable – everyone hopes to demonstrate that funding is well spent. But “not everything that can be counted is worth knowing, and not everything worth knowing can be counted.”
Rahim Kanani: Having come in contact with countless donors over the years, what are some of the key challenges or concerns they express to you while enrolled in the Academy?
Richard Marker: We hear the same thing from funders whether they are clients of our advisory firm or enrollees at courses at the Academy. Many will tell us “this is harder than I thought it would be.” Many have accumulated a lot of information, informally or at conferences or in family or board meetings, and are trying to make sense of it all. Many have struggled with the social pressures or the abundance of requests. Many have discovered underlying tensions within families or among trustees.
The Academy doesn’t necessarily teach philanthropy and grantmaking better than can be learned elsewhere. Its value added is that it presents material in a sequential and systematic way which helps contextualize the challenges which all funders face. Often, one of the most useful take-aways for our participants is the realization that issues such as ethics, choosing strategies, relations with grantees, internal decision making, internal disagreements, and challenges of policy setting are generic challenges and not unique to their own situation.
All funders struggle with the delicate issue of power, and setting appropriate expectations of the relationship with their grantees. As foundations mature beyond the time of the founder, the interpretation of donor intent always looms large. Family funders, more often than not, are confronted with questions of succession or intergenerational understanding. And in the current environment, many are trying to determine if their foundation or fund should be spent-down or exist into the future.
Rahim Kanani: How does the Academy deal with those concerns, and how do you measure your own success in terms of knowledge-retention?
Richard Marker: Philanthropy is one of those areas where experience matters – a lot. We have found that the best educators are those who have both breadth and depth in the field. We are fortunate in New York to be able to call upon an extraordinary faculty of practitioners who have both deep experience as funders and proven educational skills. Moreover, our “students” are sitting with other funders, so that there is also a good deal of peer learning.
The courses and the program at the Academy continue to evolve. Evaluations help us learn what has been successful, what new information we need to provide, and what faculty are most effective. And whenever we consider adding new offerings, we consult extensively with our “alumni” and others in the field. Furthermore, we are now able to customize coursework to be held anywhere, and not just in New York City.
One measure of our impact is that a high percentage of our attendees are referred by past participants. Moreover, it was our past participants who pushed us to develop more advanced level course work.
Finally, we make sure that the faculty are well aware of how their own expertise fits with the remainder of the curriculum so that knowledge can be built upon knowledge.
Rahim Kanani: If you were to advise high-net worth individuals beginning to enter the philanthropic space, what are some of the key questions, challenges or opportunities you would want them to think about?
Richard Marker: No one has enough money to fund everything. One of the hardest things is to learn how to say “no”. But, if it is hard to say “no” graciously, it is even harder to say “yes” wisely.
Therefore, spend time understanding your own, your family’s, and your board’s culture. Often there can be agreement on priorities and even focus, but there may be very different styles of how to get there. Without that awareness, those differences can get in the way.
Be willing to learn from others and from your own experiences. It is okay to make changes along the way, and it is very okay to experiment.
There is more than one right way to be an outstanding grantmaker whose giving makes a difference. Just because another funder chooses a funding path doesn’t mean it is right for you.
Don’t be too risk averse, and be willing to make mistakes.
It is a rare privilege and blessing to be able to give so that others can work to improve the world, and always remember who has which role. Funders enable others to do what matters. Those who do the work we fund should be ennobled as well as enabled by our support.
Rahim Kanani is a writer, advocate, strategist and entrepreneur for global social change. His articles, opinions, and interviews with global leaders can be found at www.rahimkanani.com. Follow him on Twitter @rahimkananiand on Facebook. Have an idea for a great interview? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.