Posts from the ‘Best Practices’ Category
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.
September 12th, 2019
Upon returning from a recent vacation, I saw that the lead article in the current Chronicle of Philanthropy addresses issues of staffing, retention, and compensation in the non-profit sector. This posting, partially revised, from 7 July 2019 speaks to some of those issues and includes a few practical suggestions not mentioned in the Chronicle article. I hope these will be welcome additions to an important discourse. We funders must recognize the essential nature of quality staffing to accomplish the extraordinarily important work we enable. I particularly call your attention to sections #3, 4, 5, and 7.
A colleague recently expressed surprise that I had not submitted a response to an RFP for leadership training for a foundation board that was posted prominently by a national philanthropy organization. I demurred saying that I really am not an expert on “leadership.” The colleague’s response was pretty strong: “Are you kidding? Of course, you are” and went on to remind me of my own career path.
My professional world over the last quarter century has been fully in the area of grantmaking, funder education, and advising funders and families about how to make informed, ethical, and wise decisions. But the colleague reminded me that I have a long history of volunteer leadership roles, and professional work advising and teaching foundation leadership around the world, and, also have held senior executive and supervisory roles. I acknowledged that I had both relevant experience and some well-developed thoughts about leadership.
For what it is worth, I calculated that, over the course of my career, I have served on at least 60 boards and chaired 12. [It is a role I relish and would be delighted to join additional foundation boards.] Moreover, when I was an executive, I supervised many dozens of professionals and organizations around the world. While I am in the autumn of my career and these roles have been reduced, there are some learnings that have emerged along the way – a few of which may be worth sharing here.
1. I learned early on that there are 2 types of leadership – “ascribed” and “earned.” The former emerges out of “position” – and is often top down; the latter is what others attribute to you independent of the formal “position.” One would like to think that one can hold both roles simultaneously, but it doesn’t automatically follow and isn’t easy.
2. Being CEO or a professional supervisor carries a certain authority. Indeed, one has that ascribed position because there is assumed confidence that one can lead a business, organization, or foundation or some part of one. When one does this well, the staff, board, other stakeholders, and peers all respect the culture, style, and vision of the leader. This confidence must be earned. Without it, a leader has power but only ambivalent or reluctant followers or employees.
3. The empowerment and enfranchisement of others is typically the most effective long-term way to earn that respect. Top-down exercise of power or charismatic style may work for a while, but it rarely inspires genuine long-term loyalty or deep-seated respect. And they certainly do not cultivate future leadership and decision making, indispensable attributes for the long-term viability of any business or organization. [If you see me, ask me about my sobering discovery, very early in my career, about the flaws of charismatic leadership.]
4. The courage to stand for values in the face of organizational challenges is often a measure of how deeply a leader is committed to earning that role. Organizational change matters, and is always disruptive, but when those changes are only because it may be popular or because a few more powerful folks demand it, it may be expeditious but rarely efficacious. [A personal note: Much to my real surprise, in recent months several people told me that what they remember most about my various leadership roles – both as a professional and as a volunteer leader – were the times I stood fast on principle, or told “truth to power” – even when it was unpopular or at professionally cost/risk. Those anecdotes have touched me deeply.]
In this context, perhaps it is important to give an illustration: When I became CEO of a regional non-profit based in Chicago in 1982, I learned that not only was my salary low by any comparative local and national standard, but every single staff person’s salary was way below their comparable standards – and those standards themselves were barely manageable. The board thought that they were paying normal salaries. When I demonstrated the discrepancies, they offered to immediately bring my salary up to national norms. I asked if everyone’s salary would be raised and they said no. I refused to accept my increase until the entire staff received an appropriate increase. It took a full year, but it happened. I wonder what kind of leadership credibility I would have had if I had been the only beneficiary of a much-deserved salary correction!!!!
I also insisted that the increase was not to be a one-time bonus but rather an adjustment to everyone’s base salary. Otherwise annual incremental increases would be calculated on a much lower base.
5. If having a moral compass matters a lot, leadership also requires a profound empathy. That empathy needs to be manifest to those whom one leads. In these days of attention to staff retention and cultivation, perhaps two very concrete examples [of many techniques I used] will illustrate:
a. Career Pathing: When I was a CEO or supervisory executive, I offered to meet with every professional every year to help update their resumes. Why? Well, for one, virtually every professional thinks about his/her next career step; I know I did. Why should I begrudge that ambition in others? No, I didn’t want those colleagues to leave but even more I didn’t want them sneaking around thinking they were disloyal. An unintended consequence was that I often learned that many professionals were 80-90% satisfied but one element of their job was really bothering them. By switching that one assignment with another professional with a different set of priorities, both could be more gratified in their work, and remain longer than they originally intended.
b. Professional Development: In the non-profit sphere, personnel is almost always the largest budget line. So, if there are budget pressures, that is the first place to turn. One line that always seemed vulnerable was the one for professional development. Yet I knew that it was invaluable to the long-term strength of any organization as well as to the growth of individuals within it. Therefore, working with board leadership, we moved that item from being a separate budget line to an assured personnel benefit – in the same category as health benefits. It demonstrated our commitment to how important this was and protected it from budget cutters who saw conferences and staff training as a dispensable luxury item.
6. Effective leadership requires another balancing act as well: keeping an eye on the long term while understanding the daily demands on all elements of one’s organization or business. A visionary who only sees the future may appear charismatic but can often undercut those who need to do the work. One who is only committed to the daily organizational needs may be an outstanding Operating Officer, but rarely can lead the organization into the vagaries and potentialities of the future. This combination of skills and attributes is rarely easy, but, when achieved, it is the mark of outstanding and exemplary leadership.
7. Culture is the grout that holds the organizational edifice together. For example, espousing empowerment and then overruling decisions is likely to inspire only safe behaviors and discourage risk taking. Bragging about staff quality and then always hiring from outside for key positions erodes loyalty and casts doubt on your sincerity. Endorsing the need for equity yet continuing to pay differential salaries to women or minorities is suspect at best. When there is a discrepancy in any of these areas, there is an erosion of “earned” leadership that not only weakens the leader but takes a toll on the business or organization as well.
It is trite to say that leadership is both an art and a science. Typically, it is hard not because of our intentions but because of our blind spots – every single one of us has them.
As we look around the world today, we find a resurgence of a destructive, non-empathetic, self-satisfying leadership, and not only here in the USA. Whether because of blind spots or megalomania, they are the wrong kinds of leaders for long term societal thriving, and a counterproductive paradigm of good leadership. Someday, soon I hope, they will be replaced.
In the meantime, whether on the national, local, or organizational level, leadership informed by these insights learned over 5 decades may help advise the next generations of leaders in every sector.
September 11th, 2019
It was 3 years ago when a group of funders and advocacy groups announced the Participatory Grantmaking Initiative. It was founded on a key underlying philanthro-ethical principle – now cleverly articulated in the pithy statement: “Nothing about us without us.”
The initiative reminded funders that our power can distort our perceptions of what real needs are and our judgment about allocation of our funds. Underneath our careful diligence we are susceptible to the very same predispositions and biases as anyone else. If those most directly impacted, or at least those responsible for implementing our initiatives, are not involved in the decisions, how can we be sure that we are acting responsibly or equitably?
As our field has finally recognized, our race and ethnicity [and to a slightly lesser extent, our gender] does not always reflect those we are serving or funding. [By coincidence, this was written but not published before a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article underscoring this point.] And, unless we are funding elite schools and museums, it is certainly true that our economic status is far removed from the at-risk or at-need populations we aim to serve. It is surely a no-brainer that there are perspectives that need to be in the room and a long overdue corrective to the all too pervasive top down process.
But whose room, what roles, which decisions are far from clear. Should or must decision making extend to the board room? Do potential grantees have a disqualifying conflict of interest if they are also decision makers? [Recusal is an obvious technical answer, but we know that if one is a decision maker, even if one doesn’t vote, her/his presence is there.] And, bottom line, empowerment aside, how do we know that who is in the room actually guarantees greater impact? Therein lies the challenge.
These are difficult questions to ask these days for several reasons:
1. At a time when all questions, yes even in our field, are viewed as political, even asking this question runs the risk of implying that I am opposed to “participatory grantmaking.” So, let me set my record straight: I have been on boards which used variations of this form of grantmaking for a long time – long before the phrase became popular. Unquestionably we did better grantmaking because of having on the ground experts in the room. No question. Moreover, as a philanthro-ethicist, I suspect that several thousand funders who have taken courses or workshops with me can attest that I have been a long-time advocate that there need to be many means of countering the power imbalances intrinsic to our field – sharing decision-making is only one.
2. A more practical challenge is determining which stakeholders should be invited into the room. We have learned from program evaluators that determining which stakeholders need to be heard is often the most challenging part of any evaluation process. If that is hard for professional evaluators, consider the challenge to foundations and other funders who want to do the right thing and include the best informants but have limited resources and time to do that research. How do they avoid the challenges that they may have cherry picked their favorites or overlooked an important group?
3. A more far reaching question is what impact matters. Often in the most intractable systemic issues, funders can have perspectives that local service deliverers cannot have. That doesn’t mean that the service deliverers are wrong – but many of them have demanding claims on their time and resources that don’t allow or justify long term thinking. How one balances those two competing claims is not easy, and the impact measures themselves may compete. At the very least, it should force us to determine which interventions are most in line with our competencies and goals, and at the same time encourage us to help think through how the other needs can best be met.
For example, there is no systemic or societal issue that can be solved by a single intervention or funding approach. There are urgent needs for immediate responses to those who are ill or homeless or hungry or displaced. At the same time, all of those require a responsive public policy that helps ameliorate the underlying issues that a short-term intervention cannot. Funders with a commitment to address systemic issues know that advocacy and inter-sector collaborations are indispensable. It is perfectly reasonable to choose which approach is best for any individual funder, but we are not exempt for doing so with an alignment with those who are addressing the needs we cannot.
Impact measures – and which stakeholders should participate in these decisions – depend very much on where one fits on the continuum.
4. Underneath all of this is the question of the larger role of independent voluntary philanthropy in an open society. If, as many argue with a good deal of historic legitimacy, it is to fill in the gaping gaps that government chooses not to fund, then there is no question that there should be a mandate to engage as many stakeholders as possible in decision making. But if, as many others have argued, private philanthropy is society’s risk capital, not subject to plebiscite or opinion polls, then one might argue that it needs to be as free as possible to take those risks and stakeholders should be informants but not have a veto on funding choices. Of course, those decisions should be done in responsible, ethical, informed, and humble ways, but to take those risks is precisely the unique role that no other institution can play.
To return to the key point: our field, created out of privilege, has a lot to answer for. Whether intentionally or not, we have a long history of not treating our potential grantees as we should and knowing how to understand real needs and equity in making our decisions. Participatory Grantmaking is surely one of the correctives we should make to is to bring stakeholders into the funding process. As we see, even with the best of intentions, that approach is often easier articulated than implemented.
August 28th, 2019
This post is another that is worth revisiting several years since its first publication. I have made some very modest revisions to account for changes in what I am doing where, but otherwise it is intact. Your thoughts are welcome.
A few weeks ago, a philanthropist friend forwarded an op-ed regarding ethics for funders. [I like to give credit where credit is due, but the source of the op-ed wasn’t included.]
In reading it, I found myself amused – not because the author was off base, but because it was so clearly written by a fundraising expert who was expressing some exasperation with the overreach of some funders. It is quite true that there are ethical limits to what a funder and grantmaker can request and require from a grantee, and it is useful for funders to hear how they are perceived by the other side of the table. But in many ways, the author’s points are too easy and in other other ways do not go deep enough into the ethical and best practice issues between funders and grantees.
I have been teaching funders since 2000, for many years at NYU’s Academy for Funder Education, now at UPenn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and through our own Institute for Wise Philanthropy. In those courses, we spend a great deal of time unpacking this very complex area. This has also been a key topic of interest in several recent conferences of foundations and grantmakers. Here are 10 key points to help funders stay on the right side of right:
1. Power Imbalance Most funders do not willfully or purposely abuse the role of funder although, to be sure, some do and some do egregiously. Most however are simply unaware of the appropriate boundaries and cross them innocently. Most of these transgressions occur because of an insufficient awareness of the implicit power imbalance and the concomitant and enthusiastic willingness of a potential grantee to do whatever possible to encourage a gift or grant.
2. Philanthropy Law Most funders know the basics of philanthropy law but are less clear on their ramifications in their daily application. For but one example, “self dealing”, always illegal, is not the same as “conflict of interest” which is more nuanced and subject to board-determined policy.
3. Law vs Ethics What is legal is not always the most ethical. For example, the law permits a foundation to pay an attorney or investment manager who sits on its board. Many of us in the field feel that this creates ethical dilemmas for a board’s decision-making autonomy. I for one feel strongly that best practice should be to separate those roles – either one sits on the board or is a compensated professional but not both at the same time. This matter has little to do with funder-grantee relations but a great deal about internal foundation decision-making.
4. Interlocking Boards One area about which there is conflicting consensus is the propriety of a foundation staff or board member sitting on the board of a grantee or vice-versa. We have developed some guidelines to help foundations figure out what makes sense for them. Suffice it to say that there should be a clear alignment between grantmaking process and the policy regarding interlocking boards.
5. Honoring Commitments.. Sad to say, too many funders don’t fully grasp that public benefit organizations rely on receiving their grants on the dates promised. They pay staff, rent space, run programs anticipating that income. A grant letter should be viewed as binding on both the grantee and funder. This problem is more typically evident among unstaffed or outsourced foundations, but it should never be. It is a commitment and it is an ethical lapse not to pay on time.
6. Transparency of Procedure. Many of us have written about what transparency might mean in the contemporary grantmaking world; it has become the subject of much debate. One thing which should not be subject to debate is the expectation that a funding organization makes its procedures known and clear. That process can range from stating that no unsolicited proposals will be accepted, or that there are very specific conditions for consideration or anything in between. An organization searching for funding should be able to ascertain in a clear way who is eligible, what information will be required and when, when they can expect to be notified of decisions, etc. There are no ethical mandates that any one way of doing these things is superior to another, but there are very clear ones that processes should be consistent and evident.
There are numerous other important ethics and best practice issues which every funder should address, and in many cases establish foundation policies. But since the issue of funder – grantee relations is the one which precipitated this post and garners the most attention, let’s turn to some of the sticky issues:
7. Funding for Success. The challenge for a funder is to give the most effective amount toward a project or organization to provide the greatest likelihood that the project will succeed – or at least come close to their expectations. One way NOT to do that is to automatically discount any request. Doing so may save a funder money in the short run but may well guarantee mediocrity in the long run. Now, to be fair to funders, non-profits have been known to pad budgets and a funder often has to work hard to figure out what is really necessary or appropriate. But the key to setting the right amount is to be comfortable that the amount given will make the likelihood of success greater. It is also true that inexperienced organizations may ask for too little – or in their naivete don’t realize what will really be necessary. Such miscalculation from a large university or museum is inexcusable; from a small neighborhood center or start-up may be understandable. This organization may well be understaffed and each of the staff has multiple responsibilities. If one thinks their idea or project is worthy, no reason to punish their insufficient training. Help them know what they understated or omitted. While on the surface this may not appear to be an ethical issue, it veers into it if a funder’s funding pattern makes failure or mediocrity likely. It also underscores the need for those who solicit funds to not play games with exaggerated claims and padded budgeting.
8 Staff and Benefits. Another area where funders, mostly innocently, tend to compound a the challenges for non profit success is to have conflicting expectations. How often do we hear funders bemoan the inability of the sector to retain the best and brightest while at the same time putting pressure on hard pressed groups to cut their budgets? If, say, 80% of a budget is staff, what ends up being cut is salary, fringes, or f.t.e.’s. Funders should hold their grantees to standards of personnel practices which they would expect of a quality run organization, and fund accordingly. [While much has been written about overpayment of a few executives in this sector, in fact the issue of underpayment is far more common.]
9.Leading Them On -or, the Walking $ Sign. Site visits are wonderful ways for a funder to learn about an organization. Yet nothing raises the anticipation level higher than the word that “a funder is coming: a funder is coming”. Organizational execs send memos to their staff to the effect: “clean up your room and dress up”. A site visit makes all the sense in the world if there are really open questions about a grant request or as a way to monitor one already given which can be answered best by seeing for oneself. By all means. But funders need to be aware that when they walk into a room they are not simply flies on the wall, but rather the center of attention. People stop what they are doing, or adjust their activities for your benefit. [I could tell so many stories here, but I imagine that any experienced funder has his or her own litany.] If there is no real decision-making or monitoring, or, especially, if you have no real interest in funding a particular place or project, look for less intrusive ways to satisfy your philanthropic curiosity. Your very presence will lead a non-profit into the assumption that you are open to a proposal or have made a decision to fund them.
10. Expectations and Relationship After the Grant is Given. In my experience, this is the area most fraught with potential frustration. Funders should clarify, when a grant is given, what they expect. Whether this has to do with monitoring or evaluation or recognition or any of a long list of other relationship areas, funders have an obligation to not leave a grantee guessing. This will allow a recipient to give you what you want to know – or to determine if you are overreaching. [To take an extreme example, a $10,000 gift to a major university is not going to get a named chair; the same gift to a food pantry may be the largest gift in its history. The responses and expectations should be quite different. Similarly, it is important for funders to set expectations which are proportional to the size of the gift and the abilities of an organization to respond. A hospital or university or major museum should have no problem producing reports in a timely manner; there should be more reduced expectations from a small 2 or 3 person start-up.
This list in no way defines all of the ethical and best practice issues for funders. It is not even the full list of what we cover in working with and teaching funders, and, indeed, in the years since this was first written, the complex issue of equity and inclusion have moved to the center of our discourse. In a subsequent postings, I have explored the charged area of intervention by a funder into the work, mission, or priorities of a grantee. Until then, I invite you to add your topics to this list and to make this a robust discussion so that we can enhance the quality and standards of those who are entrusted with funds to make the world better.
August 14th, 2019
In reviewing posts from the earliest days of this blog, I came upon this piece from January 2008. I invite readers to decide how accurate I was – or wasn’t – 11 1/2 years ago.
This entry is in response to a request from Trista Harris of “new voices in philanthropy” to address this issue. It is also cross referenced on their blog.
In addressing the future of “philanthropic foundations” one is tempted to recall the most quoted generalization about foundations: “you’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.” While still true for some, it is frankly not as true as foundation folks used to believe. Fads in philanthropy and herd mentality are as evident in our world as in any other. Therefore a few generalizations:
August 13th, 2019
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!
June 18th, 2019
There I was, sitting in the waiting room at New York’s Penn Station. The person sitting next to me was on the phone discussing her work for the entire time I was there, in a decidedly non-whispery voice.
I have only an inkling what this person does, and even less about what those on the other end do. All I can report is the one line that immediately caught my attention. “You can’t let it upset you. Remember, foundation people aren’t like other people.”
You are probably not surprised that I began to listen more intently, and it became clear that she was talking about a very well-known foundation. And, interestingly, one that has made public strides to become more user friendly and equity oriented. Yet, evidently, not so much so that the invisible person on the other end could resist complaining.
All of us in our field know that saying “no” or “yes” is loaded, no matter how hard we try. I want to be very clear that I have no reason to assume that the foundation person was unreasonable, curt, demanding, officious, or any of the other pejoratives for which we are known, sometimes deservedly. So, let’s not assume that the foundation person was culpable. Nevertheless, the person I was listening to had no problem painting us all with a single brush stroke.
Is it true that we are “not like other people”? Is it true that our privileged role, by definition, makes us inscrutable to everyone else? Is our power, exercised or not, so intimidating that, even without trying, we all seem to be living in our own world?
I don’t think so and many of us spend a lot of time trying to model accessibility, honesty, candor, and support. Yet, this episode, even if anecdotal and not worthy of statistical generalizations, is one that we all need to take seriously. Especially since the well-known foundation has very publicly tried to model best behaviors, this comment cuts deep. We clearly have a lot to do.
There is much to say about issues of equity, decision making, and many of the larger systemic issues – about which we have written in the past and to which we will return in subsequent posts. But in the meantime, let’s not forget that many of us on the grantmaking and foundation side of things still have some catching up to do if we are to be models of genuine partnership, collaboration and collegiality.
One never knows what lessons one can learn simply minding one’s own business. Hearing unsolicited evaluations, and taking them to heart, isn’t a bad start.
May 26th, 2019
I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t observed it on a number of recent occasions in philanthropy settings. [As readers know, I try to write these pieces so that individual funders or foundations are not easily identified, so the examples below will be, purposely, devoid of identifiable specifics. But they are real.]
In our field there has been a very healthy discussion about the best ways to use our voluntary resources, including our philanthropic dollars and leadership roles. That is always appropriate, never more so than in this misanthropic political era. None of us want those precious resources to be wasted, and most of us recognize that there are persistent systemic issues that beg our attention.
Many funders, either for reasons of habit or because they have carefully determined that it is the best for them, focus all or most of their resources locally. Place-based philanthropy is surely as old as any philanthropy, and most of us can see needs right in front of us if we choose to look. However, rarely does that local funding rise to the level of systemic solutions.
If one reads much of the current literature, one may feel that such local funding is inadequate or ill spent or simply irrelevant. It isn’t. For even if we were to determine that we know exactly how to solve huge systemic issues such as education, health care, poverty, climate change, etc., the only way that happens is if there is an on-the-ground component. People need to be healthy, not just the health care system. Children need to learn, not just school systems. People need to practice good environmental practices, not just through the EPA [when it is allowed to do its job!] That all happens to real people in real places, all of whom are, by definition, somewhere- that is local.
Let me be clear and reiterate what most of you know: I am a big believer that social and systemic change requires advocacy, big picture thinking, and a commitment to equity. Classic philanthropic giving alone won’t cut it. But I also know that it can only work through implementation, on the ground, locally.
However, what I recently discovered, to my surprise, is that many funders, yes, even some well-staffed foundations, still don’t see the relationship of their local funding to a bigger picture. They have decided to fund locally and act as if that place is a closed, self-contained system.
For one example, I recently was present when a group of funders were reviewing their reaction to a very genuine local disaster/crisis. Their compassion and generosity were beyond reproach. They did good things, their thinking was right on, and they developed some short-term very effective responses. What surprised me, though, was that they had gone through the entire process, and were about to extrapolate long term implications, without anyone in the room having heard of an organization that has already developed best practices through many disasters and has examples directly applicable to the community in question. It wasn’t my imagination, because when I mentioned that organization, everyone in the room confirmed that they hadn’t heard of it.
It was a classic example where localism had, unnecessarily, led to isolationism. It might be disappointing if a single funder had acted and thought that way, under the assumption that no one knows and understands their “place” as well as they do. But when a group of funders and foundations, some of whom were quite sizeable and staffed, acted that way, it troubled me.
Another example of this is the tendency of some affinity-defined groups to see themselves as unique. “Our… [choose one: religion, ethnicity, political history, race, gender, …] is not like others and, just as others cannot understand us, so too we need not learn from others.” I have previously written about the “with us or agin’ us” tendency of intersectionality, but here I am speaking about the tendency of some funders within these groups to mirror an isolationist tendency in their funding decisions. Why learn from or collaborate with others if we don’t feel that they can understand our uniqueness.
Lest anyone misconstrue what I am trying to say, I want to categorically affirm that there are distinct challenges to every affinity-defined group and there are indeed legitimate special interests and concerns that should be factored into all sorts of areas, including funding. At the same time, there are generic issues of decision-making and ethics and equity and systems- change that transcend those distinctions. It is not, and should not be, one or the other; understanding both the distinctive and universal at the same time is absolutely crucial.
One of the reasons I began to be an educator of funders in 2000 was my impatience with the field’s mantra at the time: “You’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation” – usually stated with a self-satisfied chuckle. One doesn’t hear that very often anymore because the world has changed: There are more affinity groups. There are more on-line resources. There have been more articles in the mainstream media about our field. And there are more educational opportunities. Even those who may choose to fund locally or idiosyncratically are fully aware that there is a field, there are substantive things to know. [I am not so naïve to think that everyone joins those groups or takes those courses, only that working in isolation is now a choice, not a default.]
There is, as well, an implicit and important mandate for local or place-based or affinity-defined funders to take the larger picture seriously. Just as it is impossible to actualize systemic change in the abstract, so too it is impossible for those funders committed to systemic change to make good funding decisions if they don’t fully see how those decisions work- or don’t. Place based funders hold vital insights and actionable data that needs to feed into the policy and systems conversations. Some few situations may very well prove to be too idiosyncratic to be useful, but most local funding situations are reflective of larger challenges. How local funders answer those questions of learnings, provide information on what worked and didn’t, and participate in a dynamic dialectic on those issues can make the difference between moving toward real change vs another “big bet” gone sour.
In other words, funder isolation is counterproductive in both directions; place-based and affinity-defined funders can – and many do – learn from emerging practices and systems thinking; and big picture funders can – and many do – learn from those on the ground.
Place-based and affinity-defined funding will always have a place. Systems funders do as well. Neither should work in isolation even if they choose to fund only within their sphere of commitment.
Good philanthropy requires no less.
May 21st, 2019
This brief vignette is written while in Rome for meetings and presentations. Among the topics of the international gathering, the primary reason for this trip, is the challenge of NGO responses to the movements of peoples around the world, and of migrants in Europe in particular.
Some of those responses are nothing short of heroic, but, in context, the situation is overwhelming and has more to do with public policy than hands on human services. I suspect that last statement surprises no one reading this piece.
However, a very personal experience showed how one can unintentionally find oneself making what may be perceived to be a political statement – especially one at odds with one’s own position. And, by extension, a teachable moment for us in the philanthropy sector.
As the last minute, I was asked to moderate the keynote sessions that outlined the relevant data, some applicable NGO responses, and the challenges to the international leaders present. I make no claim to be an international expert in the field of migrants, but I am an experienced speaker and moderator, so the organizers felt comfortable that my last-minute substitution was a safe one. I daresay they were correct but…
My chosen attire that day happened to include a green dress shirt. It was an aesthetic choice and not a political one. [Sometimes when I participate in climate and environmental sessions, I do wear green purposely, but on this occasion, there was no such intentionality.] After our session, a very good friend who now lives in Italy, a world-renowned scholar whose knowledge is exceeded only by his humility, pulled me aside. He knew me well enough to know that what I just reported about my attire was true, but he gently informed me that, in Italy today, wearing green is an anti-immigrant symbol – and to Italian eyes and in other settings, my shirt might have been read as a political counterpoint to the substance of the presentations. [He went on to give me a couple of other recent examples of the same error – clearly to assuage my evident horror of my unintended statement.]
Having spoken in 39 countries over the years, and visited many others, I pride myself on cultural sensitivity. I confess that this one caught me fully unaware. But it did reinforce how important it is to not assume that our actions are always perceived as benign, even when seemingly innocuous. When one is in a leadership or public or funder role, one must never allow oneself the indulgence to think that others won’t judge our actions, our words, and, yes, even our attire.
In the current philanthropy world, this is a real life symbol of the lessons we as funders must take with us in all of our work, of what it means to be a funder – with privilege and power. Where one sits, literally and figuratively, is a statement. What one funds is surely a statement. What one says and how one speaks are, unquestionably, statements.
In my teaching philanthropists about philanthro-ethics, it has been my experience that the vast majority want to fund wisely, and also to behave well. It is rare indeed that a funder wants to lord the power imbalance over their grantees and petitioners. Usually theirs are errors of unawareness. Behaviors or words that may seem innocuous to a funder may be heard as judgmental or fully loaded by those on non-profit side. Letters are often scrutinized for their underlying secret code, and a passing observation about a project or priority may be read as an alert.
If one is a leader or a funder, self-awareness becomes a sine qua non, and sensitivity to our affect a mandate. Without it, we can inadvertently appear patronizing. Worse, we may so intimidate our grantees that we never have the open communication to let us make the informed decisions about our funding that we truly want to make. This not the first time this point has been made, and it won’t be the last.
But, as I was reminded yesterday, it matters.
April 1st, 2019
This was first posted on 21 March. Apparently a tech error prevented it from being disseminated to all subscribers.
I was a third generation “legacy” attendee of an Ivy League school. Growing up, I don’t recall too much uncertainty about whether I could go there – only if. We attended football games, my family made annual gifts [although, admittedly, there are no buildings or chairs bearing the family name], and I knew all of the school songs [do they still do that?]
My subsequent career has, I am proud to say, justified their acceptance, but I daresay, looking back, I would have been a marginal applicant today. It is my suspicion that the admissions committee did not have a heart to heart about my capabilities; rather, I was a “legacy; next application…”
In those days, that kind of legacy was sort of assumed. It rarely required an affirmative or expensive buy-in. It was the privilege that accompanied privilege.
We didn’t think about that too much in those by-gone days. I became more aware of it during the 11 years I subsequently spent teaching/working at a different Ivy League school as the world began to change and last names more readily attracted attention. But so did proactive “diversity”. There was the sense that whatever favors names or money or national origin or color brought, they were capable students who just happened to have a leg up in the ever more perverse and competitive admission process. [Along the way, I learned that there was a lot more inscrutability to the process than how much money someone had.] [My son and my nephew chose not to attend the family legacy school, so it is left to our 3-year-old grandson and his cousins to, perhaps, resurrect the chain. But that is a long way off – a good thing given the current financial realities. And only incidental to the remainder of this post.]
In any case, over the past days, there have been millions of words written about the admissions scandals – legal and illegal – in American higher education. What concerns me in reading them is that too many of the op-eds and government responses focus on too narrow a question. Here are some of my responses:
• Let’s be cautious about passing new laws regarding endowments and tax deductability. Bad cases make bad law and too quick a “fix” may saddle us with even bigger problems for both philanthropy and education. Both need fixes – but not headline-driven patches.
• I am struggling with the all too thin line between illegal bribery and legal influence buying. Of course, there is a difference, but they reflect deeper systemic issues that encompass both.
• Underlying the bribery is the reality that that not all favored admission is to the wealthy; it is, though, to the wealth of the school Athletes bring a different financial value to a school. All one has to do is look at how much a university nets from a bowl game or a March Madness slot.
• There is a real issue of what the true meaning of education has become. Here is a case where a very dated marketing device to encourage higher education has come back to bite us: Starting in the 50’s, students were encouraged to attend higher education to enhance their earning ability; true and fair enough. But when earning ability supersedes critical thinking and education as a deep-seated societal value, it loses something. [I needn’t belabor this point: We are paying the price today in the character of public discourse, the absence of critical thinking, and the horrendous lacunae of basic knowledge by too many in the USA.]
• This leads us to the challenge to and of education. We have an ethically abysmal system. Even moderately upper middle-class families cannot afford most elite higher education, and lower middle class are even priced out of State schools. And if one takes a look at the shocking attempts to defund and privatize El-Hi education as well, we have a profoundly cynical approach to the concept of civic obligation toward an educated and literate populace. [I am reminded that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin created the first free library out of a belief that a democracy can only function if the demos is literate! How far have we fallen from those ideals?!]]
There are few public policies more transcendent than that of education. With the erosion of the commitment to a thoughtful and thinking population, combined with the sense that, at least at the higher education level, it must be bought, we have a much greater problem than a few wealthy people securing their place in a social caste system.
Philanthropy does not have clean hands in this. After all, the largest gifts typically go to the already wealthy institutions. And while a few outliers like Michael Bloomberg may have committed a 10-figure gift toward scholarships at his own elite alma mater, one has to look very long and hard to find equivalent 7, 8, or 9 figure gifts to the institutions a bit lower on the class scale, but perhaps no lower on the teaching one. Our field talks a lot about equity, power, and the challenge of privilege, but it is rare indeed that our largest investments go to the kinds of investments and grantmaking that redress those societal needs.
More than anything, education needs a major adjustment in public policy – more resources, more affordability, and more genuine commitment to critical thinking. No question that philanthropy can never and should never be expected to do that alone. What we do have is an obligation to make sure that we are using our position of suasion and our resources in ways that narrow the caste, wealth, and learning gap.
If not, we may be sure that Varsity Blues type scandals will continue to cast a harsh light on our privilege.