January 2nd, 2019
This post is not a typical one. Instead of offering thoughts on the philanthropy to our field, this is a request for feedback from funders, philanthropists, and foundations, and colleagues. It is inspired by the many self-congratulatory posts and emails disseminated widely at this time of year, and a professional question they raise for me.
I certainly have only admiration for those in our field who have been recognized and successful. After all, the philanthropy world desperately needs informed, experienced, ethical, and independent professionals who can make sure that our collective billions are wisely spent. While success does not automatically mean that those advisors are all of those things, I would like to think that many are, and are deserving of their success. [Some, I know, are less so, and are simply great salespeople, but for the purpose of this piece, we will set that issue aside.]
The reason for this public inquiry is a detail about if and when it is appropriate to publicize the names of clients.
Over the years, my own practice has been quite consistent. I never publicly share the name of a client. There are two exceptions: when potential clients want references, of course, I provide a limited number of names, but that is always a private, non-public, matter. The other exception is in teaching – and then only when I have the explicit permission of the client or the clients themselves have chosen to publicly acknowledge my role. In neither situation, though, would I put those names in published articles, on our website, or on social media.
The reasoning for this practice is very straightforward: I don’t want potential clients to be concerned that I might reveal their names when they expect confidentiality. I don’t want to rely on disclaimers to assure them of discretion.[I should add here that I do not seek or accept retainer contracts; I only work on a project basis on matters of funder strategy, succession, and the like. Therefore, I am never in the role of being, functionally, a part time foundation officer. It is not a typical business model in our world and may help explain my thinking.]
If many of the end of year “reviews” we have all seen this past couple of weeks are indications, my very conservative practice is not the norm. Clearly many very respected colleagues are quite comfortable being very public with their client listings. Indeed, it may even enhance their marketability.
Thus, my questions – and I really hope to hear from funders as well as advisor colleagues:
• Is my long-time practice impractical and unnecessary, or conversely, does it inspire confidence?
• To funders: are you more or less inclined to invite a proposal from an advisor who has a publicly-posted list of clients? How do you learn about experienced professionals in the field?
• To advisors: what is your thinking regarding the question of publicizing clients? Have you ever experienced push back or do you find that publicizing client names enhances your appeal? If you have chosen to publicize, when do you raise that question with clients? If you have chosen not to do so, what alternative marketing approaches do you find most helpful?
It may seem strange to many of you that, this late in my career, I am raising this question. As some of you may know, I had largely suspended my advisory practice to concentrate on being a trustee, an educator, a private funder and a speaker. During this past year, though, in response to a number of direct requests, I have re-opened my philanthropy advisory practice. These questions, then, are quite relevant.
In advance, thanks. Best wishes for a successful 2019 to all.