Posts from the ‘Careers’ Category
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!
July 11th, 2017
Readers, students, and clients all know that I urge all funders to take “exit strategies” seriously as an indispensable component of effective grantmaking. A workshop on this subject is a popular unit of our courses and a frequently requested conference presentation.
An attendee of one of those conferences who did not attend my session had heard that I had spoken about exit strategies and contacted me to see if I would share the PPT. While I was open to do so, I learned that her interest was not about exit strategies for their grantmaking but her own. Approaching retirement, she was looking for guidelines to help the foundation she headed have a smooth transition to a successor.
In reviewing my funder exit strategies guidelines, it was clear that only some of those apply to personnel changes, and for those that do, it is only by extrapolation. Nevertheless, I realized, I myself have been in her position, or supervised or advised many others who were transitioning and I wondered if I had learned anything. [One of the advantages of having had 5 careers is that there is a collection of unsystematic but suggestive data worth looking at.]
Some of the following strategies are from the perspective of the one transitioning; others reflect the perspective of the organization. Together they provide a blueprint for effective leadership transitions:
1. There is no perfect time to leave. There is always more to do and something not yet done. Most in the private sector take that for granted; those in the non-for-profit sector often take leadership responsibilities so seriously that we feel a sense of guilt that we haven’t finished, or a sense of annoyance that the leader hasn’t completed some key part of the work. Gradually – probably belatedly – I came to see, if I had finished, the job wouldn’t have been big enough. Projects can finish, organizations rarely do.
2. Everyone is replaceable [with the possible exception of a brand-new startup fully dependent on the creative innovations of a single individual. Much to say about that, but not in this posting.] Those who believe that they are not replaceable are probably leaving the organizations in a needlessly fragile place. Our replacements may not look like us, sound like us, do like us, lead like us, or even dream like us, but they may be exactly the right person to take the organization to levels of accomplishment we hadn’t imagined, or, if we are honest, correct for our weaknesses that had been masked or overlooked by our hard-won successes.
3. Charisma is a Fragile Leadership Style. Therefore, our leadership style, from the very beginning, needs to be committed to building an organization stronger than the one we inherited, with viable bench strength and empowered decision making. I have told this next story previously, but in this context, it is worth re-telling.
Very early in my career, when I was still in grad school in the late 60’s, I had a part-time position on a university campus. I was charged with overseeing and developing a student/faculty group. Lo these many years later it is hard even for me to believe, but I somehow developed a guru leadership style. Groupies followed me around. Big crowds came to our events. It was a different era and I thought I was doing something new and noteworthy. While I was in no way abusive [and decades later, I feel comfortable saying that], it was a very personality centered leadership model that had no sustainability. When I completed my graduate studies and I accepted a prestigious full-time position elsewhere, everything collapsed immediately.
I was crushed. I promised myself that I would never again use a cult of personality leadership style and would always err on the side of empowerment and decentralization. I daresay that in many subsequent leadership roles, that worked.
Leadership too based on the power of one charismatic individual is the most fragile model and least adaptive to successful succession and transition. [When this does exist, and we all know that it does, it typically calls for some sort of interim or transitional system to get an organization on track.]
4. So is a Bureaucratic One. If charismatic style is not ideal, a strictly bureaucratic one isn’t either. An organization needs to be encouraged to reach beyond its grasp and dream beyond its limits. Hopefully, that ethos is ever present, but it certainly needs to be a part of any succession planning. A leader should model that visioning but may not monopolize it. Transition is an ideal time for the articulation of those visions and dreams among all levels of an organization since it can motivate and inform subsequent decision making.
It is tempting for well-run organizations to look to “stay the course” at a time of leadership transition. That sounds easy, but should be adopted with some care. Any leadership change is itself a kind of intervention even when an organization chooses not to change radically or adjust its priorities. Even a well-groomed successor is not a clone and even a successful organization needs to decide if it wants to affirm what it has done or if this is the perfect time to try one of the roads not yet taken.
5. Step Away but Don’t Disappear. This next point calls for a very tricky and delicate balance: when planning to step down, a leader needs to begin stepping away from decisions that will be implemented after the succession. That is not the same, though, as being “out of there” too quickly. Genuine discussions with top board and staff about this question can mark the difference between a smooth and honored transition and one surrounded by a sense of abandonment.
6. Be “Out-going”. Organizations often have genuine and authentic affection for the contributions of their long-time leader. Wouldn’t it be great to have her around a while longer? Maybe give him an office, and an “advisory” role? As a rule, not a great idea. There will be a new leader and that leader needs space, emotionally and physically and organizationally. One would hope that open channels will continue to exist for the times when the new leader seeks advice, but at a distance. Stakeholders at every level should know and see that a change has happened and if the optics and semiotics convey that it may not have, it is very easy to set up a counterproductive dynamic that hampers the new leader and hobbles the organization. [I know that there have been exceptions that have worked very well, but one should enter into those arrangements with great caution and care. The trade-off of the positive of institutional memory vs the negative of controlling from the metaphoric grave can be very real.]
7. Allow Time to be “New.” For all of the planning by the outgoing leader and board, a new person needs time and space to be new. My advice to new professionals, at any level, has always been “you are only new once.” There are questions one can ask, conversations that one can have, and people one can approach with a most open agenda only when one is new. After 6 months or so, it is assumed that the new person has his or her own ideas, opinions, reactions, and recommendations. Moreover, it is often awkward to reach out after 6 months or so and then say, “I have been here for 6 months; sorry we haven’t spoken yet.” Boards need to build in an acceptance of a certain amount of time for that kind of discovery. The outgoing leader needs to resist the temptation to say, “I could have told you, why didn’t you ask me first?” New people need to have their own relationships, their own opinions, and their own business model.
8. Document. Outgoing leaders owe it to their successors and to their organizations to document procedures, time lines, and any other operational matters. The likelihood is that long-time leaders have so internalized many procedures that they may not even think to commit these matters to a memo. But it is not fair to a new executive or the organization you are leaving for them to miss a filing deadline or a key communal meeting or some other “do it all the time” matter because it was so ingrained in you that you didn’t think to document it.
It is often useful for an outgoing leader to sit with a key administrative person and other executives to review the documentation and time lines. [This is not about human resource matters that, of course, need to be handled according to confidential protocols, but are about the operations of an organization.] Having overseen or supervised many transitions, I can attest that errors of omission are the norm, not the exception.
9. Board Role. The board should have a transition committee to oversee the transition. This may or may not be the selection committee or the executive committee. Since any outgoing professional had competing claims and expectations, and any new professional has even more, there needs to be a committee with authority to endorse what is to be done by whom and when, and to run interference with those who have legitimate competing preferences.
10. Public Positioning. A key part of the transition process is what is said to the public and when. Once upon a time it was possible to keep information fully quiet. Today, the number of stakeholders involved in and impacted by any not-for-profit, and the ubiquity of social networking makes such secrecy impossible. Therefore, the public stance of any transition should be planned early and information presented pro-actively. It makes it possible to respect the outgoing leader, obviate any rumors about the transition, and give helpful information about the succession and successor.
This list does not present a time line since situations can vary so widely. Moreover, there are two very specific situations that require special attention and, therefore, require more customized responses to the general recommendations listed in this post. One is when a foundation shifts from donor/family led to professionally directed. The second is when a non-profit organization shifts from being founder directed to a successor. These are rarely straightforward matters of leadership succession and require a very different, and often very sensitive planning process.
Thank you to my unmet foundation colleague for her query on leadership exit strategies. I appreciate that she encouraged me to offer these thoughts. I invite others to add to or fine tune this list of recommendations.
June 7th, 2017
This plea is not new. I have been pleading for our field to develop a professional credential for 15 years. It is time to make this plea once again.
I do so now without the risk of a perception of a conflict of interest. Previously, I know that some readers thought that I was simply hawking the NYU grantmaking certificate program in which I was a part time faculty member. However, while NYU still offers a limited number of funder education courses for foundation professionals, last year it discontinued all of its certificate programs. Similarly, I teach part time in the University of Pennsylvania’s CHIP funder executive education program, an outstanding offering primarily for principals, trustees, and foundation CEO’s. CHIP hopes to institute a high-end certificate in the future, but not yet – so in this brief window, I hope my urging won’t be dismissed as self-serving.
The request is built on a simple premise. Foundation professionals and philanthropy advisors have no professional barrier to entry – other than being hired – and that is simply wrong.
It is a bit shocking: we are responsible for making or advising decisions worth billions of dollars every year. Our cumulative decisions influence an entire sector. Our voices can have profound impact on public policy. Yet all that is necessary for us to do that is to get hired.
That is not to say that none are well equipped to do the work that we do. Quite a few are. Some are hired because of distinctive content expertise. Some are hired because they know the principals. Some are hired because they interview well. Some are hired because they are in the right place at the right time. All of these are good and representative reasons why people get hired.
But none are required to demonstrate that they have a certification or credential or a license or a degree in the grantmaking field. It is exceedingly rare that a newly employed professional is expected to fill that lacuna as a condition of employment.
Fundraisers are expected to have credentials and in some States to be registered. Lawyers, doctors, wealth advisors, psychologists, teachers, even barbers are required to get a credential – and in most cases to demonstrate that they have earned continuing education credits annually. But not foundation professionals or philanthropy advisors.
The tradition of self-authentication in our field is hardly new. When I entered the field, one regularly heard “if you’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.” There was a certain legitimacy to that description at the time: the field was far less developed than it is today; it was comprised of a much smaller number of professionals; interest in philanthropy education and articulation of best practices was still years away. Most important, foundations typically reflected the “culture” of the founder or primary funders. That doesn’t mean that they were correct in dismissing standards and credentials, only that we can understand why.
Less defensible was the more recent response of the founder of an organization of consultants and advisors in our field when I informed her that their members were eligible for a discount at the then thriving NYU Academy for Funder Education. Her exact words were “why would our members need courses? They already have clients.” I hope that I need not explain to readers why I was flabbergasted by that comment. No doubt, many of their members are well educated as well as busy, and bring very respectable, if not credentialed, knowledge to their work. But I know many of their members and, sadly, more than a few could sorely use the education a credential would represent. One would hope that the current leaders of that organization are more sympathetic to the need for an educated membership.
In 2002, when NYU gave me the pro-bono go-ahead to help conceptualize what a certificate curriculum for funders should look like, I consulted with the Council on Foundations, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, the Forum of Regional Associations, and what was then known as the Association of Small Foundations. That curriculum has served the field well for over 15 years, taught upwards of 2000 funders from 26 nations, and did produce a professional level certificate, but that certificate was neither well known, nor widely adopted. In retrospect, it needed not only the conceptualizing partnerships and the co-teaching of courses of those four organizations, but also a broader buy-in and mutual ownership. This is a call to start over.
Realistically, there are two pre-conditions to a widely-recognized credential in grantmaking:
1. Employers of professionals in the grantmaking arena would need to respect its value. It need not be a pre-requisite for employment, but a foundation or advisory firm might require that professionals earn the credential within their first 5 years.
2. There would have to be a consensus in the field about what a professional certification would mean. Today, lots of organizations give “certificates” but there is no standard. One can receive a certificate after attending a luncheon, a one-day course, a three-day course, a one-week course, or, as was the case with the defunct NYU Academy, the equivalent of 2+ weeks of course work.
In order to move this ahead, I would urge a convening of those of us interested in developing certification standards, and would be happy to play as active a role as would be helpful. My vision of the curriculum and standards for our field may not be what other foundations and other professionals ultimately decide upon. But without a commitment to compliance it will never be adopted nor taken seriously.
Or, someday, it might be imposed upon us by those with less knowledge of or commitment to our field.
It is time.
May 19th, 2017
#268 Can one be a truly independent advisor/consultant and an outspoken advocate at the same time?
Someone asked me that question this week. They noted that I am far from reluctant to express my political positions on Facebook, Twitter, and even here, and at the same time, as a philanthropy advisor, pride myself on my independence. S/he went to on to ask the derivative question? If I can comfortably advise funders without imposing my own politics, why couldn’t I do fundraising for one organization while I am advising a funder of another? If I insist on the perception of independence in one, why not the other?
Two fair questions: Let me respond to them in reverse order.
Why I won’t do fundraising?
The easy answer is that I don’t know how. Fundraising isn’t my expertise and I don’t take any professional contracts in areas I consider beyond my expertise.
The less easy answer: I consider that it crosses a philanthro-ethics line. For me, [but, I recognize, not for everyone in our field] I don’t see how one can be paid to advise funders and at the same time be paid to raise money for organizations that want their money. Funders wants to be confident that my responses to their priorities, questions and decision-making are never self-serving. The minute I am paid to raise money, that question is inevitable. And even recusal is a problem because it means that the funder is getting less of me than he/she has a right to expect. Since I don’t raise money, I cannot speak from experience but I suspect an organization paying a development consultant would want to know that the consultant is prepared to open doors to any funder with potential interest.
That answer might not be persuasive to everyone, and as I acknowledge above, there are many honest and trustworthy consultants who feel no professional ethical conflict in having clients on both sides of the table.
Of course, then, how do I answer the presenting question of this post – how do I articulate political convictions and at the same time serve as an independent advisor to clients?
First, my political positions are unequivocally my own. I am not paid to say them and I don’t work for any organization. Anyone who pretends not to have a political position is either fooling him or herself, or trying to fool others, well-meaning though they may be. In the present environment, I feel that there is a mandate to articulate and advocate for things one believes in.
Secondly, I have had a good deal of experience differentiating what is opinion with what isn’t. Two of my proudest moments as a public speaker on philanthropy underscored that: in one case, the ED of an organization that invited me to give a major talk told me that an attendee said, “I don’t agree with his politics but I could listen to him all day long.” In another similar situation several years later, an attendee said, “I could do without his political positions, but when is he speaking again? – I would love to sign up!” It is awfully difficult to be a speaker on the topic of the intersection of public policy and private philanthropy without some personal perspective seeping in.
Thirdly, when I work with funders, especially families, it is inevitable that diverse opinions emerge, sometimes about politics, sometimes about succession, sometimes about the direction of how to run the foundation, and more. I agree with some more than others. But I wouldn’t be very successful for very long if I led the discussion with an articulation of my own personal points of view rather than helping the family or foundation come to conclusions that will work for them long after I walk out the door.
I suspect that not everyone is persuaded by my answers to either of the questions. More to the point, as I said above, many first-rate professionals find no ethical challenge following different practices. Even though I adhere to a policy of an impenetrable wall between those who want money and those who give it, many firms feel that their own self-discipline, and disclosure to clients obviates the challenge.
As for the other question: It is gratifying that many have applauded my outspoken stances these past months. Some have commented that, even knowing me for many years, they never realized I felt so strongly. At the same time, some have criticized me for that very outspokenness. If they have said that to me, I am quite sure that, for others, I have rendered myself out of the running for some valuable speaking invitations or advisory contracts. So be it; it is the literal price to pay. The times and the challenges facing our nation and the world do not allow for silence. I do hope that my voice is raised responsibly, and words used for good, and that they add to a constructive public discourse.
After all, what is philanthropy for if not to make our world safer and saner – even if doing so doesn’t please everyone?
December 29th, 2016
This post is longer than most. It was precipitated by the convergence of two related recent events: The rebranding of “Talent Philanthropy” into “Fund the People” and a conversation with a highly respected professional who works as an executive in the not-for-profit sector. This affords me an opportunity to compile a series of thoughts and an overview of an issue that matters to the philanthropy sector. [Some of the content has appeared over the years in previous posts; much hasn’t.]
As many of you know, for a good chunk of my career, I was an employee of not-for-profit organizations. Admittedly, I was fortunate – my own roles were always at the professional and executive level and, while I was certainly paid substantially less than most of my peers, I never saw myself as a “communal servant.” Indeed, just the opposite – I was working in a professional capacity for the kinds of organizations that allowed me to do work I wanted to do in settings in which I wanted to be.
Don’t misunderstand, the pay differential hurt. Financially, they were challenging years. But most of the time, I didn’t feel that I was a part of a class system that looked down on me. In retrospect, I am quite sure that there were two factors that let my self-image be at odds with my financial reality. One, I came from an elite type background, so even if the resources that defined my upbringing were not mine, my identity had been set. Two, very few people thought they could do what I did. It meant that board members never looked at my work and said “I can do it better.” It led to mostly healthy volunteer-professional partnerships during that part of my working life.
Having said that, I don’t want to dismiss or belittle the all too frequent under-respect and under-recognition toward many who are in this sector. Over the years, I myself have felt it. Was it an insult or a compliment when friends and acquaintances would say “You’re a smart guy; why are you working for a non-profit?” Or isn’t it patronizing when asked: “You work for a non-profit; why do you work so hard? [When I was in that sector, I regularly worked from 6 AM until after 7 PM every day]. And there were others.
Over the last 20+ years, when I have been on the funder side of the table, I have witnessed too many structural inequities that perpetuate an often unhealthy state of affairs that directly impacts one of the largest sectors in the US economy. So, despite the welcome attention that “Fund the People” has brought to the table, it still needs attention.
It would be unhelpful to deny that in much of the world, there remains an implicit caste or class system in the field – if not for all, certainly for too many. Some of this is the result of a culture that confuses non-profit work with a vow of poverty. Too often one still hears the counterproductive assumption that a choice to work in the NFP/NGO world by definition means that one has chosen to accept a marginal salary, perhaps okay for a summer internship or a first job, but certainly not a preferred career path. It is a destructive confusion that just because a non-profit depends on voluntarism, so the employees should see their salaries as an extension of voluntary good will and not as hard earned and well deserved professional compensation. [I will speak to “budget balancing” later.]
There are a number of interesting causes of these perceptions, about which much has been written elsewhere. One element rarely discussed is who is likely to be a volunteer leader in the sector. Let’s face it, volunteer leaders are often those at the top of the financial pyramid. Those who work in the sector, therefore, are not typically interfacing with their economic peers. Right or wrong, those with substantial means understand that their leadership has come with a price-tag, and those who work in the sector often see themselves or are even told to see themselves as working FOR those who are paying the organization’s bills [as opposed to working FOR a cause or organization]. It is far too easy to see the funder and volunteer leader as always right. [If you want to see a relatively benign example of the derivative “power” of a funder, be a fly on the wall when a funder is coming to visit a non-profit office. You may be sure that a notice will be sent around reminding staff to clean their desks, dress appropriately, and be on good behavior.]
In fairness, since I have advised and taught many hundreds of philanthropists and foundation professionals over the last 17 years, I can attest that most funders are not even fully aware of this informal exercise of their power and, when it is pointed out, are quite open to and even prefer a less power-laden relationship.
Before addressing some strategies and tactics to redress some of this, I want to emphasize how internalized this is for many who work in the sector. A couple of examples: in my last position on the non-profit side, I had executive roles in the USA and in other countries. It meant a lot of travel. While my expenses were not borne by the places I visited, I depended on those on the ground to make hotel reservations for me. In some few places, I was very pleasantly surprised, but in many more, I was shocked at the low level of accommodations provided. These were often either very low level hotels or student hostels. I quickly came to realize that those who were making the reservations were simply projecting what they might afford and assumed that it was the norm. Very telling.
Similarly, at one point, over 20+ years ago, I served as elected Vice President [volunteer] of an international association. The name was “…. Of Communal Service.” When I realized that for too many the words implied “communal servants”, I proposed changing the name to “…. Of Communal Professionals.” The change was rejected since it was far too great a leap for many who had spent their careers internalizing their “service” status. [There is much more to be said about this example than is possible in this post.]
The final example is one to which I alluded in the first paragraph. [Out of respect for the anonymity of this very respected and successful professional, I will purposely blur the details and simplify the case.] This professional sits on the board of an organization. That board has decided to honor the founder and chose to set up a one-time board appeal to help fund the event. There was no specified amount and there was, not surprisingly, a range of gifts. The only person who raised a question about participating was a professional in the non-profit world. The issue was not how much the person chose to give, as much as wanting to make it clear that this person should be viewed differently from other board members and perhaps shouldn’t have been solicited. As far as I can tell, this person has never been treated differently from every other board member, but his/her self-perception was otherwise.
These examples are certainly not intended to “blame the victim” as much as to show how far we have to go to re-align things. Below are several ways that have had a positive impact over the years. Some speak to sector wide opportunities; others address the distinctive roles that we funders have. The list is far from fully comprehensive, but might stimulate additional thinking among all who are entrusted with leadership of the NFP/NGO sector around the world. Readers are encouraged to add to this list.
1. Budgeting: Non-profits adapt their budgets and priorities to the questions funders ask. All too often, funders ask a legitimate but ultimately insufficient question. Looking at the budget of an organization we fund, we may ask if there are ways in which the budget can be balanced at a lower level. Since personnel is almost always the largest budget line by far, there is really only one place to hold the line or make cuts. So, benefits, or conferences or salaries may be curtailed. But that isn’t the only way we funders can ask the questions about the budget: since personnel is the essence of what most nfp’s, why not first ask about personnel policies or staff training or retention or career opportunities? If organizations perceive that this matters to funders, it won’t take very long for those same organizations to organize their budgets and staffing to show that they take these issues seriously. Surely, discussion of retention, recruitment, training, advancement opportunity are all relevant to the strength of an organization, and are best addressed when not hidden behind a “balance the budget” starting point.
2. Compensation: Similarly, in the USA, the 990 non-profit tax return asks for compensation information but only about the highest paid employees. All well and good and potentially a source for some constructive conversation. But what if we were to have information about the lowest paid employees as well? Just think about what the conversation would be if a non-profit were expected to address the imbalance or, perhaps, a pattern of abysmally low salaries at the bottom. Most funders, I suspect, would want to work closely with our grantees to redress this imbalance.
3. Roles: The NFP/NGO sector is large and diverse. When I was a CEO, I would encourage all professional staff to seek a board position in a different non-profit from ours. While their first response was to say that they couldn’t afford it, it didn’t take long for them to discover that there are many smaller local non-profits that are thrilled to have someone with the experience or expertise of a seasoned professional on their boards. In many cases, financial board contributions are manageable or negotiable. The results were consistently positive: the professionals became much better partners with their own volunteers, they learned how respected their knowledge was in the field, they developed more constructive approaches to development and fundraising, and learned how to present their work more persuasively – understanding what it means to those whose role it is to govern and advocate.
4. Transiency within and between sectors: Since I began my professional work, I have had 5 careers; for those my age that is a lot but I have read that younger people anticipate having 7. When I was an executive, I always assumed that everyone was, in some way, thinking about what was next on his or her own career journey. I know that I was. The idea that anyone looking for her/his next job or professional challenge is disloyal seemed both ridiculous and counter-productive. Therefore, I would help every professional who reported to me to update his or her resume every year. You may ask – aren’t you giving the wrong message? My response was that I would rather work with my professional colleagues on their career planning than have them do so in secret. Moreover, more often than you may think, as the CEO, I was in a position to address their evolving interests or their boredom with a part of their job descriptions. Many would choose to remain longer than they might have otherwise.
And what if they chose to leave? The next place they landed would have a satisfied, empowered employee who would be enhancing that organization, the field and the sector. And presumably, we earned a positive reputation so that people would want to work for us and we would have great choices when it came time to replace them. Not a bad dynamic.
It is also important, and I think a positive, development, that not only do people change jobs in their working life, but shift between sectors. If we work hard to structure learning, respect what various sectors offer, including the non-profit sector, the entire workplace benefits. I don’t want to idealize this transiency or the transportability of skills, but I do believe that if we view these as opportunities there is much to be gained by both individuals in their own careers and by employers who now have workers with overlapping skill sets but very different perspectives on how it all fits together. Seems like a recipe for a culture of innovation.
5. Funding: Funders need to remember that grantmaking is a problem-solving exercise, not a negotiation. We need to make it safe for those who seek or receive our funds to feel free to tell us the truth. And those who do receive or hope to receive funds need to learn how to say “no” if the funds offered are insufficient to do the desired work or would take their organization down a donor-driven cul-de-sac.
There is still a lot of remediation necessary on both sides to accomplish this. Seekers of funds have had a long experience of feeling the need to sugar coat the real challenges before them, or to create padded budgets in anticipation of automatic discounting of their requests. And, despite several years of urging funders to welcome failure, if we as funders are honest with ourselves, it is still a challenge for our grantees to do so safely and with impunity.
Part of this remediation requires that both funders and recipient organizations acknowledge the full range of professional competencies necessary to succeed. That may involve recognizing credentials, salary levels, accessibility – or not – of those with specialized knowledge. Often a project or program can only succeed with such a staff person, and to downplay the necessary training and support to get there may well ensure avoidable mediocrity. Under any circumstances, though, if a staff person of a NFP/NGO sees that her/his employer has the institutional ego-strength to be willing to say “no” to a funder, it makes it easier to behave as a professional partner with volunteer leaders.
In recent years, many of us have written about the need to provide adequate infrastructure support for any organization to succeed over time. More recently, in the funding world, there has been a welcome recognition that time-restricted or short-term funding has a related limitation. To be sure, there are occasional special programs that require single time funding. But most efforts to address real stakeholder needs or societal problems are not “quick and dirty.” They are complex, involve moving targets, and need ramp up time to work and adjust, and even longer to measure what is and isn’t working. [To take but one real case of what not to do, a foundation funded a volunteer afterschool program for teenagers. After only 6 months, deciding whether to renew the grant, they wanted “evidence” how this program had changed the teens’ lives. Sadly, while a bit extreme, this is not as unique as one would hope. Funder colleagues, take note.]
Shaping a funding package should be a collaborative effort. Once a funder has decided that something is to be funded is when the work should begin in earnest. Of course we funders have agendas, but without collaboration our agendas may not be real or realizable. If we want a project to outlive our funding, the structure of our funding should enable the non-profit to address that from the very beginning. If we will want an independent evaluation at the end of a project, bringing in an evaluator at the beginning will ensure that appropriate and relevant data is being collected and that the staff who are implementing the project help articulate what and how that can work, and what information is most useful.
6. Staff-Board-Funder Collaboration: All too often, organizations assume that information is gathered by only one of the players. Most often a staff person is asked to prepare a report that is presented to a committee and then to the board and then subsequently submitted to a funder. Or, on occasion, the process may begin with a board member who has heard of new approaches or of a successful new initiative by a competitor. At each stage, there are assumptions and biases that inform not only what is said but, more importantly, what is heard. When there are “teams” representing all of the key decision makers who do site visits together, or jointly review information, more complete and thoughtful information is gathered. For example, if one wants to understand the “competition,” a joint staff-board-funder team is likely to return with a far more nuanced understanding that addresses needed adaptations and changes. This is particularly true if an organization has been doing things a certain way for a long time and there are entrenched opinions that need to be challenged. Or when an organization is going through a periodic strategic review, the more stakeholders who review the same information and data together, the better. Or when a field of service is evolving, team attendance at a conference is more likely to yield an understanding of the newer concepts and their implications.
This team approach reinforces a constructive partnership between staff and board, reduces defensiveness, and will usually lead to better decision making.
7. Mainstreaming support for staff development. It is great to see the recognition that “Fund the People” has been receiving. It has brought much needed attention to lacunae in the NFP/NGO sector. I do, though, have a concern. The solutions cannot be perceived to be one time corrective grants or special project funds for conferences and staff training. If the issues are systemic, the fix must be as well. When staff training is a “soft money” benefit, it will disappear when the grant does, or when the next fad hits. To guarantee that we eliminate the caste system, that we recognize professionalism, and that we see all of this as essential to a thriving sector, budgets must build this support in as essential and core; board leaders need to learn to adjust their thinking to what it means to have professional partners in the organizations they lead; and we funders must make sure that our decisions and behaviors reinforce the kinds of policies and behaviors that strengthen our hands, and the hands of our grantees, in addressing the systemic challenges of our times. These times require no less.
May 31st, 2011
This year marks the 11th year of my teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals at NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and the 10th since the development of the program now called the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education. This posting is one of a series of reflections on a decade of teaching funders at the USA’s oldest and most comprehensive university program of its kind.
The very first course I taught was one of the first three offered by the 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 in fact was able to host the entire course at the offices of the foundation.
Much to the surprise of the new NYU Center, 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.