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#347 The ICYMI Series: Do You Want to Work in a Foundation

August 13th, 2019

Richard Marker

Originally posted on 31 May 2011; slightly revised. Over the years, it has been one of the most read and popular posts and most of it is still quite applicable today.

When this post was first written, it was during my 11th year teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals in special university offerings. This post was one of a series of reflections on a decade of teaching funders at the oldest and most comprehensive university program of its kind. Sadly, NYU’s Academy for Funder Education no longer exists. Happily, UPenn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy

The very first course I taught was one of the first three offered by NYU’s Center for Philanthropy, and was intended to introduce fundraisers to the other side of the table. It was entitled “Do you want to work in a foundation?” At the time I was still heading a now closed foundation and was able to host the entire course at the elegant offices of that foundation.

Much to the surprise of the then new NYU Center [now closed], a large percentage of the attendees were already working in a foundation and were anxious to build a knowledge base. In subsequent articles and postings, I will expand on what we teach, why, how it has developed over the past decade, and more. However, here, I would like to return to that very first question.

Interestingly enough, that question was quite prescient – albeit in an unintended way… it is in fact a question I am asked, one way or another, on a regular basis. After all, what could be better than giving money away? Surely it must be better to give money than to raise it. What follows are some of the responses I give during these “informational interview” type meetings.

A. Are you temperamentally suited to do this work? This seems like a strange question but many people have unrealistic expectations about what giving money away entails:

Are you prepared to say “no” much more than you can ever say “yes?” Any funder, volunteer or professional, is well aware that one has to reject a very high percentage of requests. [That is true for all of us, but the difference between an individual simply discarding all of the unsolicited fundraising requests and an institutional funder is that many of those requests are consistent with the funder’s stated mission and part of our job. There are simply too many.] This, as most funders will tell you, is much harder and more demanding than it may appear.

Are you prepared to be a walking dollar sign? Once one is identified as being a funder or a gatekeeper, it is absolutely guaranteed that every social event will become an opportunity for a veiled solicitation. Years ago, the day that it was announced that I was going to head a foundation, Mirele and I were at a reception. On the way home, she said, “we had better learn not to become cynical.” All evening people lobbied her to lobby me for their pet projects. I can assure you that to this day, as soon as someone finds out what I do, I am solicited. It may be the first or third paragraph, but it is absolutely predictable that it will happen. One has to have the temperament and judgment to know who is a friend and who is an opportunist [albeit with the very best intentions].

Are you prepared to have someone else take the bow for your success? If you are a responsible foundation professional, your job is to enable someone or some organization do what you are funding. They may thank you, but the credit for the success of the project quite properly should be theirs. Is your ego sufficiently in check so that all of your hard work can be someone else’s reward? If one is used to being the programmer or executive of a non-profit, it is quite an adjustment to assume a supporting cast role [important but still supporting.]

Are you prepared to have almost no measurable way to determine if you are dong a good job? After all, a fundraiser knows that more money was raised or more donors gave. But a foundation professional has little say in how much is given in total each year. And the number of grants given is hardly a measure of the effectiveness of the foundation’s strategy. Ironically, at a time when funders are looking for outcome measures from their grantees, it is at least as difficult to measure the success of a program officer’s work. If you get your satisfaction by meeting or exceeding objective measures, you aren’t likely to find the work of grantmaking to be as gratifying.

Are you comfortable with spending a lot of time doing office work? Much of the work of professional grantmaking involves reading proposals, checking out the non profit, writing up board and staff summaries, and keeping current with the fields in which funding takes place. Only a small percentage is “out there”.

B. These questions are not to discourage but to add a bit of reality to what is often a too romanticized career. If though, you feel that these questions still leave you excited, there are some additional considerations.

Do you need to work? If you do, planning a career working for a foundation is not a statistically reliable career plan. There are simply too few jobs. But of course they do exist. As this list will show, it is advisable to think more generically than simply looking at traditional private and independent foundations.

The large foundations typically hire those with content expertise, and assume that they will send their staff to our courses, or teach how to be a funder in-house. Very rarely will they look to hire philanthropy generalists. If you want to work in the big-name foundations, the best way is to make sure that your professional and academic training are in line with their giving priorities. Medium and smaller foundations are more likely to hire a generalist, but realistically, only rarely do these positions get posted.

There are many other opportunities to use these generic skills. Big umbrella charities [e.g., United Way, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federations, American Cancer Society, Donor Advised Funds, etc.] all need allocation specialists whose job is quite similar to a foundation program officer. Once the money is raised, these professionals play a crucial role in the effectiveness of these large and well-established organizations.

State and municipal entities have grants programs in arts, humanities, public affairs, etc. which also call for similar skills. [When this was first written, this was more true than today.]

There are a growing number of outsource firms and consulting firms which provide grants management and leadership for funders. Some are full service, others niche players. The skills and competencies which are called for are much the same as a foundation officer, but one step removed.

C. While no one can guarantee a grantmaking position, there are steps one can take to enhance one’s competitive position:

If you are not in the sector, it is very useful to serve on a non-profit board to learn something about the way decisions are made.

Attend public lectures about trends in philanthropy so that one can learn the terms and categories of the field. This is not simply a matter of learning the lingo; it is also demonstrates that the way in which funders approach questions may be quite different than the way other professions do.

Take courses. This recommendation may sound self-serving, but if one’s professional background is close and one’s experience is relevant, taking courses can help round out one’s competitiveness [to say nothing of adding crucial knowledge].

Network. There is no better way to get on short lists of candidates, especially for small to medium sized foundations, than to hear of positions through networking. [Please remember that all the networking in the world won’t help if you don’t have other credentials or relevant experience.]

Win the lottery. The only guaranteed way that you can work in grantmaking is to have your own money.

Is this all sobering? It is supposed to be since so many of those with whom I meet have less than realistic understandings of what they would do all day as full time funders.

Having said that, being a funder, professional or volunteer, can be one of the most gratifying ways in which one can spend one’s life. One can indeed make a difference, usually in small yet meaningful ways, occasionally in larger and influential ways. And one can take pleasure in knowing that, every day, one is helping to shape the character and values of our society. What can be better than that!

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