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#330 Alignment-Staffing: Who Should Do All This Stuff?

January 22nd, 2019

Richard Marker

This post is the third of a series on “Alignment” for funders – aligning our values, our staffing, our funding, and our intentions. Clients and those who have participated in our educational offerings are well aware of this thinking, but I have not previously published these practica. Please see #326 and #328 as the other installments to date. Others may follow in due course.

The series focuses on necessary preconditions for the successful implementation of a funding strategy. It assumes that readers already have chosen what kind of structure within which they are making these decisions – e.g., a private foundation or a DAF or an LLC, et al. For those readers who are still deciding among those options or when to use which, please feel to be in touch directly since those choices are beyond the scope of this series.

It was a brand-new foundation coming into existence as part of an estate. The funder had no direct heirs and even the relatives he named to the new board did not live near the locale of the foundation. This was the first meeting of the new foundation board and they wanted to do it right. We had worked our way through all of the strategy processes with few stumbles, and general consensus on almost everything. It was time to put it all together. One of the board members tried to summarize: “we want to make a lot of grants in these areas and we don’t want to spend our money on staff and other overhead.”

When I asked who, then, will do all the work of soliciting and reviewing all of those many grants, preparing material for the board meeting docket, maintaining connection with grantees, and all the rest, they were stumped. The board members were geographically dispersed and professionally diverse. Their desires were inherently contradictory. In order to implement everything else they had worked so hard on would require rethinking their seemingly diametrically opposed preferences on how to manage their grantmaking process.

Many readers, I know, are members of Exponent Philanthropy, perhaps the largest affinity group of funders. For many years, it was known as the Association of Small Foundations. As far as I know it is the only organization that defines its target market by the number of staff. “Small” is not the size of the asset base but by the size of the staffing – from 0 to 3 or 4. There are members with assets of over $B and those with a corpus a small fraction of that – but in each case they have chosen to do their work without a large staffed infrastructure. [full disclosure: we are members and have had a connection with this organization for many years.]

In recent years, there has been a surge of new foundations of a substantial size. I have been asked if there is a formula to determine how many staff they should plan on. It is a good question, but one that doesn’t lend itself to a simple formula.

In fact, this stage of alignment is determining who will do all of the work of being an effective funder. And while it may appear easier for funders and foundations with deeper pockets, they too must make careful determinations. What we will see in the choices below is that it is not a matter of how much money one has that determines what the staffing needs are, but rather how one best manages the philanthropic dollars at one’s disposal consistent with one’s philanthropic aspirations.

Below are a range of options – and the underlying arguments when each makes the most sense. Some of these are more tax advantaged than others, at least in the short run, but every study has shown that tax favorability is not [and should not be] the primary motivator in the decision, and too much reliance on tax avoidance may lead to unsatisfactory philanthropy..

A. The Dining Table Model: Yes, there are indeed circumstances when the old-fashioned dining table model makes the most sense. When the numbers of stakeholders or decision makers is small, when control matters, when the cost and bureaucracy of other models seems superfluous and intrusive, the most reasonable way to proceed may be to keep things intimate and unstructured. Intimate and unstructured need not mean that there is no strategy, only that the principals prefer the immediacy of keeping things close at hand and as non-bureaucratic as possible.
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A variation on this is the growing popularity of Giving Circles [a very old model now seeing a resurgence] – where groups of folks put money into a pot and make joint decisions. In most cases, these are self-directed and unstaffed.

B. Outsourcing:

1. The Outsourced Back Office Model: For many, the real motivation of being funders is doing the funding. Relating to potential and actual grantees, thinking through an appropriate involvement strategy, struggling with the hard decisions of yes and no are both the privilege and reason for engagement.

But nothing could be a greater turn off for these folks than having to push all those papers – tax forms, check writing, record keeping, COI files… they all have to be done but why not let someone else do it. Many outsourcing firms have real expertise in this area so they can relieve the burden for funders to do what they want to do.

This model can even apply when there are program officers and other professional staff. [see C.2. below.] Some foundations simply want to devote all of their energies to the actual grantmaking side of grantmaking.

2. The Outsourced Grantmaking Model: Some of you may raise your eyebrows in surprise at this one. But in fact, there are some funders who accept the responsibility of allocating money under their auspices but find actual involvement in doing so to be uninteresting.

This model works best when other internal structures can handle the administration It might be a family office or a corporate related foundation. In those cases, there are likely to be lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, and office managers who can handle everything except the grantmaking. An outside group or a philanthropy advisor can then handle all of the grantmaking due diligence and prepare board books for the times when decisions must be made. Funders are free to make the decisions, but they are not sufficiently committed to or excited by their obligation to want to spend extra time on it.

3. Outsourcing Both: Some folks would like to outsource both the grantmaking and the back-office work and only participate in the final decision making. There are many reasons why: the foundation or funders’ priorities may have a very circumscribed mandate. Or perhaps there is a funding vehicle that will only be capitalized as part of an estate or another liquidity event so the grantmaking process is really quite minimal. For funders who are willing to surrender control but still participate in decision making, Donor Advised Funds are an example of an all-in-one solution. As the data shows, they are proving quite popular since DAF’s have grown exponentially over the last few years.

For those who wish to maintain more control or at least maintain that option into the future, there are other ways of accomplishing a full outsourcing approach when one wishes to maintain more control. Some consulting firms offer these same services to individual donors or private foundations – providing full service outsourcing to the degree a funder wishes to avail him or herself of them.

C. Employing staff: While outsourcing has advantages for many, especially at early stages, having one own’s staff to help implement a funding strategy often becomes a logical option. After all, it means that the staff is working for you, and can respond to your needs at your pace and in ways that serve your needs. There are three stages of “in—housing”:

1. Support staff: As in “B”above, many funders find the experience with grantees and in community initiatives to be the gratifying part of this work. What they don’t find gratifying is the process of getting there. Having support staff who can organize all of the paper work – from proposal sorting to check writing to appointment scheduling – relives them of that part of the work, necessary though it is. Because this staff [person or people] is/are hired directly and accountable only to the funders, the range of activity and responsibility can be adapted and adjusted as necessary. At the same time, funders can be focused on where they much prefer to be, being funders..

2. Program staff: One level up is hiring professionals to be more directly involved in grantmaking practice. There are a number of reasons for doing so: it allows a professional to run interference with those who want funders’ support; it allows for more intensive due diligence and professional level pre-screening; it expands the reach of the funders by having someone able to represent them in a broader range of communal activities; and, if the program staff brings a professional expertise, it allows a more sophisticated understanding of the funders’ fields of interests.

A key decision at this juncture is what core competence is most relevant. Should one hire a generalist who has knowledge of or experience with the philanthropy field or should one choose a subject matter expert in your field or fields of funding. For large and very large foundations [see below], one might do both, but for smaller staffed grantmakers, there probably are not resources to have both a content specialist and a generalist.

A functional rule of thumb in thinking this through is how specialized and focused one’s grantmaking. If one’s funding is place based, and includes a wide variety of fields, a generalist may be much better able to coordinate whatever is necessary [and even to subcontract analysis or evaluation]. However, if one’s funding is very specialized or field based, content specialists may be a better choice.

The number of program and grants management staff will depend very much on two key variables: how open and competitive the funders’ processes are and how involved the funder wishes the staff to be with the fields of interest and their grantees. A funder who makes a very limited number of grants to a predetermined group of grantees needs fewer program staff than one whose style and approach is to have deep involvement with grantees, and work across a variety of fields of interest.

Let us underscore that, in this option, the principal and/or trustees are making the executive choices and the program staff, however large, is providing the most informed choices for them. However, as the staffing and complexity level grow, many funders will choose to move to the next stage. NB: as will be reiterated below, this is not a question of how large the asset base, but the preferred role of the trustees and principals. There are many quite large foundations – especially family directed, that, titles notwithstanding, choose this as their preferred model.

3. Executive Directed: When a funding entity gets to certain level of complexity, and there are numerous staff to supervise, many funders will choose to hire a professional to provide executive direction. There are a variety of models [beyond the scope of this piece] about whether an ED is preferable to a President/CEO, whether the CEO should or should not be a voting member of the board, and how much authority should be delegated.

A crucial condition for success of this model is that, whatever title that chief professional has, he or she should be the primary liaison to the Trustees and be the person who provides staff direction for other staff members..

When a funding entity chooses to move to an executive led level, its board and the principals need to accept new disciplines in the effective management of their funding. If they continue to prefer to “micromanage” or oversee the staff themselves, they would do better to revert to some variation of “2.” As suggested above, this is NOT a question of how much money or how many staff, but rather the role the funders choose to have.

No matter which model a funder chooses, a number of key questions need to be answered. In looking back at the options discussed above, answering these questions may help direct funders toward a clear preference for one or another of the above models..

1. Who will make the key decisions?
2. Who will gather the relevant information to make those decisions?
3. Who will keep financial records?
4. Who will keep program records?
5. Who will keep board records?
6. Who will make sure that bills are paid – including timely payment of grants?
7. Who will prepare and file the tax returns?
8. Who will manage the assets?
9. Who will maintain or manage the relationships with grantees?
10. If any or all of the functions are outsourced, who will manage those relationships and oversee those functions?
11. If there are staff, who will hire, supervise, and coordinate the staff and staff functions?
12. Who will communicate with and convene the trustees?
13. How will you know if the model you are now using has become too burdensome, not adequate, in need of revision, or other change? [Hint – it is probably worth looking at every 3-5 years.]

This article does not attempt to recommend a particular approach or formula to decide what should work for everyone -even if your goals and asset base is the same as another funder or foundation. Rather it is to give a framework for making sure that it all gets done, and in a way that aligns with the styles and preferences raised in the prior articles on alignment.

When that happens, grantmakers are far more likely to find the process of being funders gratifying and they will have the greatest desired impact with the resources at our disposal.

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