Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Best Practices’ Category

#348 – ICYMI from 2008 – The Future of Foundations

August 14th, 2019

Richard Marker

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:
Read more

#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!

#340 “Foundation People Aren’t Like Other People”

June 18th, 2019

Richard Marker

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.

#337 Localism need not be Isolationism: A Mandate for Philanthropy

May 26th, 2019

Richard Marker

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.

#338 A Faux Pas – and A Lesson for Philanthropy

May 21st, 2019

Richard Marker

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.]

WOW!!!

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.

#336 Varsity Blues, Legacy, and Equity: the Challenge to the Philanthropy Sector

April 1st, 2019

Richard Marker

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.

#334 – Confessions of an Old[er] White Guy: The Changing Faces of Philanthropy

March 4th, 2019

Richard Marker

Tsk, tsk. No, not that kind of confession. And even if it were, none of those youthful indiscretions would rise to the level of what in normal times should be the basis for appropriate exclusion from the Presidency or Supreme Court. Read on anyway.

In the close to 20 years I have been teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals, it has been rare indeed to find any session with more than a handful of men – of any age, race, ethnic background. And when one removes the principals, I.e., those who made or control the money, from the statistics, the numbers of older white men can probably be counted on one hand.

Over that time, it was never surprising to find a seminar populated only by women, and that is also true when I speak to or attend regional associations and other affinity groups in our field.

There has, though, been a noticeable change over those years: more people of color, or of differing national origins, etc. are visible, so from an optics perspective [both meanings of the term], the philanthropy field seems to reflect diversity – albeit a clear gender majority. It is no exaggeration when I report that I am often the oldest, and often the only, white male in a philanthropy room.

[Admittedly, when I have had occasion to work with foundation boards, the mix of trustees does not typically reflect that diversity, although gender balance does seem to be well on the way to parity.]

I write this as our field attempts to deal with an interlocking and complex reality – both internally and as to our larger societal role. By definition, those of us who are in a position to give money away are privileged. For those who have or control the money, that privilege extends far beyond the foundation or grantmaking space; but even for those whose background and resources may be less advantaged, the very roles we all play put all of us squarely in the privilege space. The challenge is how to properly, ethically, and effectively account for that privilege in our decision making, our empowerment of others, and in our relationship to the larger world, some of whom are grantees. If one reads the emerging literature from many others in the field, it will never be simple as long as one accepts that there is legitimacy to having independent funder entities. [Even if one advocates the elimination of those entities, as some do, it is not automatically obvious how one decentralizes and empowers decision making and resource control.]

A bit of autobiographical context. [if that is not interesting to you, please skip the next part.]

I am old enough that I grew up at a time when everyone was either a WASP or a WASP wannabe. There were Catholic WASPS, Jewish WASPS, Black WASPS, what used to be referred to in those days as “Oriental” WASPS. We all dressed, and often spoke, as if we were prepared to take our place in the Manor, or its representative law firms, clubs, and white shoe investment firms. And even if one didn’t quite make it into those circles, every one of the other firms and clubs acted as if they were of that class.

This was a reflection of a time when America was viewed as a melting pot leading to a desired homogeneity – the unstated ideal of which was upper class-ish, Anglophilic, sameness.

I graduated college in December 65, so my undergraduate experience fit that mold. But the culture changes of the mid-60’s challenged all of those assumptions about how we acted, dressed, and affiliated. Suddenly it was cool to be African American – so much so that lots of white males sported Aftros and spoke in Afro-slang. Liberation movements of all sorts – religious, ethnic, gender, national origin, led to changes of attire and décor. Alternative careers were celebrated, along with alternative life styles. Bras were burned, and jeans replaced 3-piece suits. Suddenly everyone was something other than that dreaded milquetoast WASP.

The halcyon days of everyone being an establishment alternative didn’t last long. Soon there was a palpable competition for whose group had the greatest historic grievance. “My group’s suffering was greater than your group’s suffering….” Anti-establishment morphed into siloed diversities.

It is no exaggeration to say that the USA was never the same. Mostly for the better – ]although some of the reactionary responses at this moment in history, emboldened by unconscionable words and behaviors of this administration, should make us all shudder!]

Laws have changed, Hiring has changed. Our vocabulary has changed. Our social realities have changed. And any further discussion needs to, at minimum, acknowledge those changes – even if nowhere near adequate or complete. Nevertheless, how to actually account for that diversity in the centers of power has been elusive. Tokenism, on the whole, has been the response of choice, and, even today, still is in too many settings.

Many well-meaning folks of privilege tried to compensate for that by developing approaches that, in retrospect, can only be called patronizing. To take but one personal example: When I was working/teaching at Brown University in the 70’s, the school had adopted – for want of a better term – Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Brown is as New England establishment Ivy as there is; Tougaloo is an “historically Black Southern College.” Many faculty, myself included, made symbolic visits to teach short term courses. All of us meant well, but were our efforts little more than patronizing exercises in privileged white folks modeling another life style? 40 years later one looks at things quite differently. [For the record, the Senior Chaplain at Brown, Charles Baldwin, did much more and deserves posthumous credit for it. He helped fundraise, coached top administrators, participated with their board, and exhibited a long-term commitment that rose above the self-critique I am applying to most of the rest of us.]

In any case, these times don’t allow that kind of tokenism or patronizing – certainly not in our world of philanthropy. Many [most?] of our field have progressed from know-it-all exhibition of power to an acknowledgement that we haven’t been as smart as we thought. After all, if we had been, illiteracy, homelessness, hunger, poverty, xenophobia and so much more would have become relics of a long-gone era. We have learned that there are lots of folks who know at least as much as we do, or more, about how to implement the kinds of changes we want to enable with our funding.

Over the years, our field has been trying to figure out the best ways of getting that knowledge into the decision-making rooms early enough to make a difference. Hire field of service expertise? Create slots on grants committees for representatives of the served population? Enable safe spaces for grantees to share feedback and assessment with and about funders?

Should that extend to governance as well? Can any funding entity credibly fund in a community or field of service or an at-risk population if none of those folks are in the rooms of decision-making power?

Notwithstanding the serious and cutting-edge work by several prominent organizations in our field, which I applaud, this is never easy. Empowerment of others is hard enough when there aren’t class or racial or ethnic or gender divides. [Ask almost any businessperson.] It is especially hard when our funding catchment includes many of these populations and there may only be space in the boardroom for a very few. The challenge is: can “privilege” be extended with surrendering it? It is not simply an organizational question: it involves social, economic, and many other divides and for all the “metrics” that we can develop, it will always be challenging.

Which brings me to my “confession.”

I have learned that age-ism is real.

I first experienced it when I was 57 years old and was being aggressively recruited by a search firm to be the next CEO of an organization. I was never interested in the position; it would never have been right for me. But I did know someone who was absolutely perfect for the job and told the head hunter of him. His response: “we know of him, but we are looking for someone younger”. That is an exact quote!!!

I told him that the person I recommended, and I were the same age; why was he pursuing me? His response: “Oh. We thought you were younger.”

While flattering, it was a surprising and pretty direct truth that slipped out. As I have become older, I see that the issue is real. There have been speaking gigs and advisory contracts where the choice went to someone much younger, and of a different gender – and have been told directly that age and gender were the reason. When that starts happening more than a couple of times one sees a pattern. If I once had the privilege of an elite education and background and a record of prestige positions, I was suddenly in a less desirable class.

But, before resenting those experiences, I do have to catch myself. Once upon a time I was the wunderkind and was the “youngest” or “first” to do lots of things and I was able to do so because of the advantages I started with. It would be wrong to resent someone else having that turn.

What I and we must never forget is that far too many have never had access to those positions to lose. My own experiences may enhance my empathy but must never be allowed to blind me to those who look at power, privilege, and position from the outside looking in and can only imagine what it is like. As philanthropists, we need to find ever more ways to open the doors and not just the drapes.

#335- The Challenge of Professional Collaborations in the Philanthropy World: A Contemporaneous Example

March 1st, 2019

Richard Marker

Next week, I will be privileged to co-present a webinar for The Chronicle of Philanthropy on the topic “How to Craft Gift Agreements.}

The webinar was organized by the Chronicle and will include a senior development officer representing the view of non-profits, and me – representing the view of funders. In preparation, we have considered many areas that our respective positions and perspectives bring to the table.

The underlying assumption of the webinar is what happens after a funder decides to give – not where the money comes from, not [necessarily] what led to the decision, but what happens now. how does that agreement get articulated, who has what responsibilities, and what will happen in the future?

Underlying my part of the presentation is the concept of “exit strategies” – when funders decide to give a grant or gift to any organization, part of their decision making should include what will make them feel that this was a successful grant, and the grant/gift agreement should reflect those conditions. Clearly, there must be mutual consensus that these expectations are do-able, and consistent with the scope of funding and organizational capacity. [Tune in for more details.]

My co-presenter, Felicia Murphy-Phillips, is a very seasoned and senior development expert who has tremendous experience in this area – with a scope of knowledge that should prove very helpful to her fellow development professionals who may fall into the trap that getting the funds is the end of the process. My part will share insights into the thought processes of funders, and, for funders who may be attending, how to fine-tune their own thinking.

I write this now, not as a publicity for the webinar since, without question, the reach of The Chronicle is far beyond my own, but to comment on an unanticipated on-line conversation related to this webinar.
Some wealth managers, looking only at the title, viewed this webinar from a very different vantage point. From their perspective, they presume that it is to be about the funding vehicles that accompany or enable a “gift”, such as different kinds of trusts, or the tax savings that may accrue. In other words, their professional perspective on philanthropy is not related to the perspective either of us presenters will bring to the table.

Now, admittedly, where the money comes from and how the financial component is structured matters, especially to the recipient organization. [and it will be alluded to in passing by Ms. Murphy-Phillips]. Rarely, though, is that an issue for a funder related to the topic I have been asked to address. Once a funder has decided to give for any charitable purpose, his or her primary concern is what will happen to that money once it is given. That is when the expectations and exit strategy concerns come into play. The financial vehicles, at this stage of the conversation, are, at most, incidental.

These comments are in no way intended to suggest that the wealth managers are not doing something important to advance philanthropy – only that it is not directly related to philanthropic decision making,, only its financial enabling. The title of the webinar, I now see, suggests very different content depending on what hat one is wearing.

As one who has attended and spoken at many wealth conferences, this disconnect does not surprise me at all. Indeed, many long-time readers will recognize that this is not a new issue at all. It is worth reiterating that, when T & E attorneys and wealth advisors talk about the value of professional collaborations, they rarely if ever, include a philanthropy professional on their list of colleagues with whom they aspire to collaborate. Is it because their view of philanthropy is limited by their own professional perspectives or that they simply don’t know that there are folks like us who bring a very different level of expertise about philanthropy to the table?

So, by all means, it will be great to have colleagues from those disciplines as participants in next week’s webinar. But please don’t be surprised when the content has everything to do with the respective and interlocking interests of the non-profit and the funder, and not about the financial vehicles that got them there.

What’s in a [Brand]name? Introducing the Institute for Wise Philanthropy

February 20th, 2019

Richard Marker

“It is hard to say ‘no’ graciously; it is even harder to say ‘yes’ wisely.” [from “Four Laws of Philanthropy: Hubris vs. Humility”]

It seems that the philanthropy sector is awash in a re-branding frenzy. Just this week, as this was being written, 2 prominent organizations in our field, Guidestar and the Foundation Center announced that they will henceforth be Candid. Not very long ago, 2 organizations of which we are members changed their brand names: The Association of Small Foundations became Exponent Philanthropy. Grants Managers Network became Peak Grantmaking. I am told that another organization of which we are members, WINGS, is considering a name change as well. The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers has become the United Philanthropy Forum. If one adds local organizations, the list could go on and on.

In the scheme of all of this, our re-brand is quite modest. It is not intended to signify any change in what we do, only how to make it more clear to colleagues and others in the philanthropy sector around the USA and around the world.

The name of our firm derives from the quote with which this post opens. It is from one of the first published articles I wrote on philanthropy practice and affect, about 2 decades ago. I was far from the first to make the various observations in that article, but it got a lot of attention – and helped launch my career as a speaker, educator, and advisor that began a couple of years later, after the foundation I was heading closed. In 2002, I joined my wife, Mirele Goldsmith, PhD, an independent program evaluator, and we launched “Wise Philanthropy.” We have also had the pleasure of periodically joining other outstanding colleagues who have been partners in particular projects.

We chose the brand “Wise Philanthropy” to convey the message embedded in the quote. We wanted to help people learn how to make decisions that were correct for them, informed by the highest ethics, the best practices, and the goals that they wanted to achieve. Wisdom is more than knowledge, but it does require knowledge; it is more than experience, but it benefits from experience; it goes beyond intelligence, but it is hard to have smarts without some smart. It is taking all of that and applying it to the often hard but extraordinarily meaningful decisions that every thoughtful funder must make.

Subsequently, since much of our work is as philanthropy support educators to the funder field, we started referring to our educational portfolio as the Wise Philanthropy Institute.

Why a name change?

As said above, in the scheme of these things, our brand name adjustment is exceedingly modest. But over time we have learned that “Wise Philanthropy” defined our aspirations, but not adequately what we do, and we spend a lot of time explaining what that is, and, as important, what we don’t do.

Why did we decide to re-brand? Well, if one is asked the same questions over and over, it is clear that our title isn’t exactly right. Too often we have to explain at least some of these seven areas.

1. Our business model is a boutique/niche approach so even in the field of philanthropy advisors and evaluators and educators, what we do isn’t typical.

2. We don’t work for or have the family name “Wise”. Many people ask who the Wises are. Hopefully, the change will make it clear that “Wise” is an adjective, not a noun.

3. We don’t manage anyone’s investments – although we are sometimes asked to help think through investment policy concepts that help align with values. And since we often present at investment conferences, it is an easy but mistaken assumption.

4. We don’t manage anyone’s giving or even propose grantees. Since most philanthropy advisors and advisory groups do help manage at least some part of the grantmaking process, it is another easy misperception. If a potential client is looking for those services, we are more than happy to refer them to other first-rate groups.

5. We don’t accept retainer contracts since we want any recommendations to be fully independent and never appear to be self-serving. To be clear, retainer arrangements are responsible and widespread; our model is not a judgement about those who do so. We recognize that our business model is very untypical and often surprises funders and foundations who have worked with other firms or advisors.

6. We don’t do any fundraising nor accept any development related contracts. Some professional advisors are comfortable working on both sides of the table; we have chosen to restrict our work to those who give, not those who raise.

7. We are not connected to a firm with a similar name based in Switzerland. They approached us when they first started to see if there was an IP concern, but since they have a broader organizational consulting practice than we aspire to, we felt that we were not really competitors. [This issue arises in Europe but not in the USA.]

The re-branded Institute for Wise Philanthropy allows us to emphasize our commitment to help people learn how to make appropriate decisions independent of us. At the end of the day, we realized, we are educators and trustees, teaching HOW to make decisions, not primarily to recommend decisions; HOW to improve practice or programs, not primarily to prove their worth; HOW to set policies for grantmaking or practice or investments, not primarily to be the ones who set those policies. We choose to emphasize the learning in our model, whether in our directly contracted advisory work or in our educational work or in our writing, since it suggests a more iterative role and constantly evolving knowledge. We are successful when our clients or “students” or fellow trustees can implement what we have taught or advised independent of us.

What is it, then, that we do?

We are committed to improving the quality of the field both as educators and as advisors. For over two decades we have devoted ourselves to addressing
• funder culture,
• funder alignment,
• improving organizational learning,
• funder and organizational ethics,
• strategy development, especially in the intergeneration and succession spaces,
• “equity” screens for funder behavior,
• utilization based program evaluations.

Much of this has now become mainstream in our sector – first rate and well-known organizations such as GEO, CEP, NCRP and others have made that so and deserve a huge amount of credit. We are quite proud that we have been addressing these issues for many years. Hopefully, with our new focus, we will give more visibility to our thinking to engage with our field more collaboratively, and at a more formative stage.

We do our work in a variety of contexts:

a. We work directly with funders as advisors or trustees to help them learn about and how to implement funding and policy decisions within their own context, and how, when, or if to use appropriate evaluation methods with their grantees.

b. We educate funders from around the world at both NYU and at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High impact Philanthropy and, over the years, have done so at numerous other universities and organizational settings.

c. We educate funders and foundations’ trustees and staff within their own foundations.

d. We speak extensively to affinity groups, philanthropy associations, and at conferences in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

e. We write about philanthropy, its challenges, its changes, its opportunities, and, yes, its foibles.

f. We are sources of informed opinion by journalists and have been quoted in many periodicals both within and outside of the USA.

g. We produce proprietary educational “cases”, “how-to” workbooks, and other material of use to funders.

Shortly, we will be rolling out a new website, be making 20 years of articles and our workbooks more widely accessible, and re-positioning our blog so that we can implement our expanded commitments to the field. As always, we welcome your feedback and inquiries, and look forward to long-time mutual collaborations in pursuit of what philanthropy stands for and should help enable: a more just and equitable world.

It may indeed still “be hard to say ‘yes’ wisely” – but with this re-branding, we are renewing our commitment to help our colleagues and our field do exactly that.

#329 – How Public to be with the Names of Funder Clients

January 2nd, 2019

Richard Marker

This post is not a typical one. Instead of offering thoughts on the philanthropy to our field, this is a request for feedback from funders, philanthropists, and foundations, and colleagues. It is inspired by the many self-congratulatory posts and emails disseminated widely at this time of year, and a professional question they raise for me.

I certainly have only admiration for those in our field who have been recognized and successful. After all, the philanthropy world desperately needs informed, experienced, ethical, and independent professionals who can make sure that our collective billions are wisely spent. While success does not automatically mean that those advisors are all of those things, I would like to think that many are, and are deserving of their success. [Some, I know, are less so, and are simply great salespeople, but for the purpose of this piece, we will set that issue aside.]

The reason for this public inquiry is a detail about if and when it is appropriate to publicize the names of clients.

Over the years, my own practice has been quite consistent. I never publicly share the name of a client. There are two exceptions: when potential clients want references, of course, I provide a limited number of names, but that is always a private, non-public, matter. The other exception is in teaching – and then only when I have the explicit permission of the client or the clients themselves have chosen to publicly acknowledge my role. In neither situation, though, would I put those names in published articles, on our website, or on social media.

The reasoning for this practice is very straightforward: I don’t want potential clients to be concerned that I might reveal their names when they expect confidentiality. I don’t want to rely on disclaimers to assure them of discretion.

[I should add here that I do not seek or accept retainer contracts; I only work on a project basis on matters of funder strategy, succession, and the like. Therefore, I am never in the role of being, functionally, a part time foundation officer. It is not a typical business model in our world and may help explain my thinking.]

If many of the end of year “reviews” we have all seen this past couple of weeks are indications, my very conservative practice is not the norm. Clearly many very respected colleagues are quite comfortable being very public with their client listings. Indeed, it may even enhance their marketability.

Thus, my questions – and I really hope to hear from funders as well as advisor colleagues:

• Is my long-time practice impractical and unnecessary, or conversely, does it inspire confidence?

• To funders: are you more or less inclined to invite a proposal from an advisor who has a publicly-posted list of clients? How do you learn about experienced professionals in the field?

• To advisors: what is your thinking regarding the question of publicizing clients? Have you ever experienced push back or do you find that publicizing client names enhances your appeal? If you have chosen to publicize, when do you raise that question with clients? If you have chosen not to do so, what alternative marketing approaches do you find most helpful?

It may seem strange to many of you that, this late in my career, I am raising this question. As some of you may know, I had largely suspended my advisory practice to concentrate on being a trustee, an educator, a private funder and a speaker. During this past year, though, in response to a number of direct requests, I have re-opened my philanthropy advisory practice. These questions, then, are quite relevant.

In advance, thanks. Best wishes for a successful 2019 to all.