Skip to content

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.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS