December 5th, 2019
An earlier version of this post led some readers to infer that this was about only one incident in the philanthropy world – and read it “personally.” In fact, I intended my introduction to give an example of tendency in our philanthropy sector to sometimes be more impressed by the resources than the results. In order to eliminate the potential for it appearing to be a judgement on any one case, I have re-written this.
There is a tendency in the media, and even within our philanthropy field, to be blinded by big bucks. A nine figure gift is guaranteed to get a headline and other larger gifts are likely to get outsize attention. An Accompanying articles will mention the recipient organizations and how the money will be used in general terms, but rarely will those articles address whether the recipient is well-suited to implement such a gift, have a proven track record in the field, have a particular theory of change that makes this a potentially transformative gift, or even who else in that field may be doing important, if unsung, work in the same field.
In fact, if one looks closely at most of those gifts, we find that numerous organizations have been working in those sectors for a while, some for years. A few of these may have made some real impact, others not so much. Few, if any, though, were launched with the funding of this new gift and none ever received the attention this new gift has received. Indeed, if one were not familiar with the sector, one might conclude that a newly well endowed organization is about to plow virgin land even though it has yet to announce exactly what it intends to do. It is as if money talks more than accomplishment.
This is not a new phenomenon and represents a cautionary tale for those of us in the funding sphere. There are funders who always prefer an exciting new venture – assuming either that “new” must be better than “old” or, perhaps, if the “old” organizations really knew what they were doing, there wouldn’t have been the need for a new one. Indeed, sometimes that is true. And it has been my privilege, both as a CEO of a foundation and a trustee of others and even as a personal funder, to have been involved in launching some extraordinary and creative start-ups that really did push their respective fields into new and exciting areas.
But not always. When I was the CEO of a foundation, we also made some flawed decisions. Sometimes we overlooked quite successful, if un-showy, organizations in favor of those with more sizzle and pizzazz. Sometimes we pushed wonderful boutique organizations to reach for scale, in the process forcing them to lose the uniqueness that got them there – and all too often destroying them in the process. We occasionally were so committed to “transformation” that we underestimated the long-lasting on the ground, efforts that are always indispensable for any change to have staying power. And, let’s be honest, we too often were taken with early stage charisma more than solid competence and creativity.
That we were not alone in these missteps does not exempt us from responsibility. All too often these errors were because I was taking the lead from others who seemed to have done their due diligence. If colleagues I respected were funding them, why should I spend my time repeating what they had presumably done? Moreover, I had plenty of other due diligence or monitoring or relationship building to attend to. Why not trust those who had already made informed affirmative – or negative – decisions? Yes, even funders have a tendency toward a herd mentality. [Once, following the lead of a goodly number of fellow funders, many of whom we had previously partnered with, we made a grant to what seemed to be a successful and innovative program. Almost immediately I found the executive to be intolerable, the organization unwilling to submit required financial reports, and, literally from the day they received their commitment, they were asking to renegotiate for more. Finally, I called a couple of other funders to ask if that was their experience as well. One said: “We hold our nose and fund them anyway.” Mea culpa. I could and should have discovered that before encouraging our funding.]
There are lessons that have served me well in making subsequent judgments about grantees. More, they have served me well in reminding me of the essential humility that needs to accompany all of our thinking as funders. After all, when we fund, we fund the future, and no matter how evidence-driven or seemingly a no-brainer, nothing about the future is guaranteed. And if we are trying to fund “change”, all the more so.
I don’t want to trivialize or be dismissive of the advantage of resources. After all, far too many non-profits trying to do good and important work have been handcuffed by profoundly inadequate resources. And, there are still too many funders who hold that against them – as if poverty – even among non-profits – must be deserved and even punished. [This was written but not published before the shameful cutbacks in SNAP funding announced by our heartless pseudo US administration. In one heartless stroke, 700,000 people will lose coverage. Those of us in the philanthropy world should take note and make sure we aren’t implicitly doing the same thing in how we treat under-resourced nonprofits.]
Our field has a tendency to forget that the very term “not for profit” was coined precisely because it assumed that social service work will never be profitable – or generate surpluses. There is no doubt that cash reserves of 3 to 6 months are signs of a healthy organization; but, with government cutbacks or a history of hand-to-mouth finances, not every organization providing quality on the ground human services can imagine that kind of financial security that we as funders prefer. Should we as funders penalize them for that? This goes beyond the current, long overdue, commitment of many in our field to provide operating support; it recognizes the fragility that defines a very high percentage of on the ground nonprofits.
It is true that greater resources can allow greater impact. Sometimes those resources are hidden from view but allow an organization to have a healthy infrastructure that ensures increased effectiveness. Sometimes those resources are very visible – allowing marketing muscle to bring attention of a cause to the public so that responsible public policy can be enacted. [The reverse is also true, of course.] And sometimes sufficient resources can fund continuing r & d so that successful organizations can continue to be successful. And sometimes it is because there are only a very few organizations with the size and capacity to absorb mega gifts.
But it is also true that too often we are blinded by the money part and pay far too little attention to the underlying theories of change or whether those funds are going to where the needs are greatest or whether they will be used as effectively as a less well-funded organization might…
Around this time of year, our media celebrate voluntarism, the grassroots work that so many do throughout the year, the necessary boots on the ground of so much social service. They rarely talk about the professional staff, often underpaid, who make it happen and whose work goes unrecognized the remaining 51 weeks of the year.
It is a fair bet that the same media will give headline attention to a mega gift at any time of the year. That coverage is typically of the voyeuristic type, more engaged with the donor than on the needs the gift is supposed to address. There has been a good deal written in the last couple of years about the implications of the concentration of wealth for the nonprofit sector. Those of us in the philanthropy field are discussing the issues of equity at every conference. However, I daresay that most mainstream media haven’t paid that much attention to our heartfelt self examinations.
At this time of year, let’s celebrate generosity in all of its forms and at every level. Let’s also not get blinded by outsized gifts that may or may not accomplish what is really needed. Money talks and money matters, but in the field of real human need and social inequity, money alone does not guarantee success.