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Posts from the ‘Family philanthropy’ Category

#391 The Elusiveness of Excellence – We Funders are not Exempt

August 10th, 2020

Richard Marker

A couple of years ago, my accumulated professional careers crossed the half-century mark. Knowing of my untypical journey, a number of people asked if I was planning to write an autobiography. While I don’t believe a full autobiography is warranted, I have written a pamphlet-size retrospective built around lessons learned. It will be published sometime this Autumn.

While writing, I was reminded of a number of influential episodes, some of which are applicable to current developments in the philanthropy world. This is the second such article; you may find it helpful to read #390 prior to this. Others will be posted periodically.

In this article, the applicability to those of us in the philanthropy world comes toward the end.

It was not that many years ago when Jim Collins “Good to Great” and its follow up “Good to Great in the Social Sector” were on everyone’s canon of required reading. It may still be but if so, I am not hearing it spoken about. Primarily built on retrospective examinations of what seemed to characterize those companies [and, subsequently, nonprofits] that have excelled over time, Collins challenged some B-school orthodoxies, and reminded everyone that it takes disciplined work over time to achieve that greatness.

I suspect that the book is less celebrated today because the dozen or more years since its publication have not been particularly kind to all the winners of which he wrote. Now, it is quite true that it was published before the recession of 2008-2010, and certainly before the current upheavals in the economic and social sectors, but many of his lessons are still valid, and worth the read.

When I look at his books from the retrospective of my own career, I see a divergence between what I accomplished as an executive, and how those related to my own personal accomplishments. They are overlapping, but not the same.

Before proceeding with the extrapolations to our philanthropy world, let me share a very significant personal story that made a difference to my own career and to my understanding of what “Good to Great” can really mean.

Many of you know that over the last couple of decades, my skills as a speaker and educator have been celebrated and nicely compensated. Verbally communicating to audiences small or large in 40 countries around the world became a key source of my compensation. I am a proud Legacy member of the National Speakers Association/Global Speakers Federation – membership in which is only open to those who can demonstrate that we are actually paid to speak.

Those who have known me only for the past 23 years may not know that I wasn’t always so excellent at this. My professional life had always required me to speak in public. I was always comfortable doing so, and always thought that I was good at it. Indeed, I had overflowing files of letters thanking me, and I had my share of standing ovations and plaudits. If you had asked me before 1997, I would have said I did it well.

Yet, I often wondered why I wasn’t being invited to give certain speeches that I felt I was as least as appropriate to give as those who were chosen. It was Mirele, to whom I have been joyfully married since 1995 and who knew me in professional contexts even before we became a couple, who set me straight. After we were married, she began to see that I was more frustrated by this than she had realized. Finally, she told me the truth: “If you really want to know, you are not consistently so good. You have great mastery of the content, and wonderful rapport with audiences, but your talks are, well, not consistently great.” [Admittedly this is a paraphrase, but a fair one.]

She said that if I was serious, I should work on my speaking skills. Now this may seem strange, but until that time, I had never had a course in public speaking, and, more important, no one had ever given me negative feedback.

And now we are getting to the crux of the message:

It appears that I was never so bad that it was worth it to anyone to tell me how I could have been better. I was sometimes only “fair”, maybe sometimes “excellent” but mostly “good.” No one had anything at stake in telling me that I could or should have done better. Until Mirele did.

I signed up for a mentoring program at the National Speakers Association and discovered something very quickly – I was undisciplined. I had all of the skills and knowledge and presence and I thought that was enough. But then I learned the discipline of how one organizes a presentation. I discovered that I still talked like an academic even though I had mostly left academia over a decade earlier. People did not want to know how many syllables I could have in every word; they did want to hear stories that illustrated what I was talking about. They didn’t want to be impressed with how much I knew; they did want to know how that knowledge could make a difference to them. [You know the old mantra: “nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.”]

Within 6 months I began to have evidence of the transformation. I started getting invited to more places, but more to the point, invited back! The character of the thank you’ s was markedly different.

I look back on so many squandered opportunities over the years and wince. I asked myself “why didn’t anyone tell me?” If I could go from just “good” to “excellent” in only 6 months, think about what I might have been able to do had someone held a mirror to me, or had the courage to tell me.

And now the message: the only person [other than a loving spouse] who really cares if you go from “good to great” is yourself. If you want to excel, you have to make it clear to others – and safe for others – to tell you! For most others, “good” is good enough. As I said above, what stake do they have in pushing you to excellence? Most of the time, your personal aspiration is at best only incidental to them or their work.

It also made me rethink prior parts of my career: I am pretty confident that I pushed organizations that I headed or was a trustee of to become high quality performers; I am less confident that I helped colleagues and supervisees reach that level in all they ways they could. Or maybe should have.

Having learned that skills and knowledge are insufficient without the discipline to apply them means that one has to work hard to not become complacent. One of my favorite, if embarrassing, cases about my own complacency goes back to a time when we were invited to Buenos Aires to give some lectures. One of the talks was to university students at 10 pm on a Saturday night. Shockingly, it drew a very large crowd – I learned that I was the entertainment before a night of dinner and dancing. Before speaking, I did my homework, and learned the names of all the hot spots that young adults frequented. I peppered my talk with those references, and I was a star! Two years later, we were invited back, but I was complacent and didn’t bother to update those references. They were all passé. And, while the talk was more or less well received, my star quality was seriously diminished. I have been back since for other audiences but not for the young adult crowd. Serves me right.

At the present time, the foundation and philanthropy sector are doing a lot of soul searching about our decision making, about our governance, about our priorities, and about our role in society. Groups such as CEP, NCRP and others are pushing us to go beyond our long-term self-satisfied [and often self-congratulatory] complacency to respond to systemic issues of racism and economic inequity. Impressively, many in our sector are taking these challenges seriously. Good enough is simply not good enough anymore.

The challenge, though, is if we can sustain this attention, momentum, and operational change over time. In the midst of a pandemic of public and of persuasive challenges to the social weal, it is evident that we must respond. But when there is a vaccine or a change in administration or a recognizable sense of normalcy, will we as funders find it all too easy to become complacent? Or will our commitment to endemic and systemic change propel us to internalize the discipline to sustain excellence?

That discipline will prove the harder challenge – one from which we must not back down.

#390 Listening vs. Hearing: The View from the Other Side

August 5th, 2020

Richard Marker

A couple of years ago, my accumulated professional careers crossed the half-century mark. Knowing that it has been an untypical journey, a number of people asked if I was planning to write an autobiography. While I don’t believe a full autobiography is warranted, I have written a pamphlet size retrospective built around lessons learned. It will be published sometime this Autumn.

While writing, I was reminded of a number of influential episodes, some of which are applicable to current developments in the philanthropy world. This piece emerges from one of them. Watch for additional posts that will address others.

…..
“Strategy” is the constant among my five careers. Whether in the non-profit or for-profit sectors, or, in the last quarter century in the philanthropy arena, being a strategist has been the core competence that ties it all together. I learned very early on that the elegance of a strategy, the completeness of the data, and the rigor of the process are often for naught if there is not attention to implementation. There is much to say about this, and I have written and taught about this extensively. But a current discussion in our field has underscored, once again, how crucial the implementation stage is in achieving any effective strategy. In this case – the difference between listening and hearing.

The anecdote: I recently had occasion to be reminded of a project I did fairly early in my career. In my first full-time post-graduate school position, I was a young associate chaplain/faculty at Brown University. Toward the end of my first year [’71-72], a graduating senior came to meet with me. He told me he had a beef: He said that there were matters of identity that he and his friends had never discussed and, now, on the eve of graduation, realized that he wishes they had. He told me that he thought that the only person he knew who could have facilitated that much needed conversation was me.

Now, to be fair, while it was a nice compliment, there were undoubtedly lots of folks who could have facilitated that conversation; his was probably more a comment on the still existing divide between faculty folks and students even in the early 70’s. It did challenge me, though, and I subsequently began a practice that I continued for my remaining years there. [I left in 1982.]

At the beginning of every Spring semester, I would invite graduating seniors to my home for small group teas. Over the years, I learned a lot. The most sustaining lesson was this: whatever perceptions I may have had about students’ commitments and involvements based on what I observed proved to be only coincidentally aligned with what students said about themselves. I might see a student doing some particular program or activity almost every day, yet those very students would describe themselves as only very marginally connected; other students might talk about how important a project was to their undergraduate life, even though he or she might be totally invisible to others involved.

In other words, self-perception is not always aligned with how others see us. The data alone was misleading – or at least insufficient. It was a lesson that has served me well in every subsequent career, but none more so than in my journey in the philanthropy sector over the last quarter century.

Our field is fraught with opportunities for misperception. It historically has been built on a power imbalance – one side wants, the other side has. Those who want financial resources need to convince those who give that they should give to them. Built in is a challenge of perceptions. Organizations that want resources from funders try to determine what the funder really wants to hear, what will give them a tactical advantage, what is legitimate hyperbole vs dubious exaggeration, and what will give a funder the confidence that their articulated missions will best be fulfilled in supporting your organizations. Funders have our own set of desiderata: yes we want to assess all of the items presented by those seeking our funds, but we also have our own independent considerations: where does this request fit within our own priority system, how does supporting this organization or project align with our own risk tolerance, how does this request compare to other similar requests on our docket, what is the internal push and pull among family or trustees or staff, and more.

Those requesting funds rarely know all of these internal considerations – meaning that there is an endemic disconnect. They are limited by their perceptions – extrapolating from the knowable [grantmaking history, articulated missions] to the “best guess.” Proposals, whether written or oral, all reflect a best guess of what the funder really wants, but since there are so many subjective factors, there is always, by definition, the unknowable.

Some funders have made our own mistakes – that of assuming that we can take the guess work out of our decision making. It is a little less true today than it was a few years ago, but for a while, funders thought that we could apply a rigorous due diligence and metric system to make the “right” decisions. That too is wrong – and also for an important endemic reality: we fund the future, and the future is never guaranteed. We may choose to reduce the risk by supporting only well-established organizations, or well-developed programs, or sector leading executives, but…. COVID-19 only proves that nothing is assured. Moreover, the lower the risk, the lower the likelihood that creative change can occur. If, as many funders claim, we want our money “to make a difference”, it is important to remember that “difference” has to mean something will be different.

If that is true, we too have an obligation to learn how to extrapolate beyond that which is presented. But how?

This is where our field is moving in a healthy direction. There have always been some in our sector who have made it safe for potential or existing grantees to tell the whole story in honest ways, but not most of us. There have always been some in our field who know that those on the ground are more likely to understand real needs, especially in the realm of direct service/at risk populations than we. There have always been funders who have an understanding that funding the future means that some things we fund will [and should] fail, but too many still don’t have the tolerance for failure or the importance to endorse its legitimacy.

Many of the most welcome changes in the current climate in our field are attempts to address exactly these things. Initiatives such as “Trust Based Philanthropy” or “Listen4Good” or “Nothing about us without us” or the ongoing work of CEP are all very welcome attempts to rebalance. How do we as funders make it safe for grantees to tell us honestly what they need? How do we make sure that the direct stakeholders are the real beneficiaries of our intended largesse? How do we allow grantees to take enough risks toward much needed change that some will assuredly fail? These, and numerous other initiatives are pushing us as funders toward redressing gaps in our own practice and affect. The primary responsibility in making these adjustments is ours.

It is also true that not every nonprofit is guiltless. All of us on the funder side have seen organizations that have chosen to hide essential information, to reject thoughtful support as inappropriate intrusion, to be blind to their own failures, and to view us funders as inscrutably “different than us.” We as funders may have the primary responsibility to readjust our behaviors but we are not alone in this. Non-profits too need to learn how to listen – to words that may appear patronizing or distanced or judgmental or overly jargon-y, often presented in settings that are intimidating but are usually well-meaning and more often than not intended to be constructive.

All of us, yes every single one of us, has filters that align what we are told with “our own” reality. The real challenge, then, is not only listening but also knowing how to hear. Since affect and tone and setting and implicit biases [on both sides] can so easily distort, knowing how and what to absorb from feedback and shared information is a constant challenge.

As we know from so many other contexts, collecting data may be hard; interpreting that data is much harder. Creating strategies may be daunting; implementing them is much more so. And, listening may be hard; hearing is much harder. For all of our benefit, it is a skill worth learning.

#386 Black Lives Certainly Matter: Why, then, did these 2 people give me pause?

June 16th, 2020

Richard Marker

A few years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement first arose, it was not uncommon to hear a rebuttal – “but don’t all lives matter?”

Most of those who responded that way were simply being dismissive [that is the most generous way to put it.]. However, some folks I respected really needed an explanation. They had been on the right side of activism and associations, and the last thing they could imagine about themselves is that they were participating in or affirming racism. Their genuine views were built on the concept that a society needs to be built around a vision that all are equal, have equal access, and equal opportunity. Their well-meaning but naïve response was neither malicious nor mal-intended.

Most of these folks got it after it was explained to them why the phrase mattered and, regrettably, needed affirmation from all of us.

It is now several years later, and the BLM movement has expanded – for terrible reasons. There are lots of articles and analyses about why now but suffice it to say that it isn’t hard to understand why we who are White once again need to affirm the message. Nowadays, when we hear the same rebuttal about “all lives matter” it might mean that one is genuinely clueless and doesn’t accept the truth of endemic racism in America. Worse, some don’t really believe that all lives do matter – that only White ones should. I have very little patience for either of those perspectives.

I was, though, caught short in hearing two people comment about how it made them feel. One was a First Nation/Native American and one was the child of Holocaust survivors. In each case, they wondered why their historic anguish wasn’t being recognized or, they felt, was being implicitly dismissed. Neither in any way tried to belittle the legitimacy of the BLM Movement, nor deny that it was way overdue. Their point was that they looked at their own history of delegitimization, of legal and illegal discrimination, of the death sentence that too often accompanied their ancestors, even their own personal experiences, and how easy it still seems for much of the US to not take their histories as seriously as they now seem to be taking the travails of Blacks. Their concern, separately articulated, was that as America confronts its shocking and shameful history of anti-Black racism and racist behavior, that their own narratives will be lost, and America’s empathy quotient will be used up.

Now – so that no one, absolutely no one, misreads what I am writing here – let me be explicit: this is the time for the message of BLM – it should not be diluted, delayed, or discounted. American accountability is long overdue and practices and policies that have allowed racism should be changed – yesterday. No one needs to make excuses for the profoundly effective and moving protests seen around the world, and no one needs to apologize for saying that this is the time.

If one looks at history, though, the concerns of these two are not misplaced. America’s shameful past toward First Nation/Native Americans must never be allowed to be ignored. And the resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in the USA accompanied by a frightening skepticism that there were really 6 million Jewish victims of Nazism demonstrates that the work is far from done. How does one honor those very legitimate concerns – especially as we look to what we want in the future?

When I lived in Chicago in the 80’s and early 90’s, I had the honor of being involved in a Foundation funded by the Chicago Community Trust charged with addressing intergroup understanding. One of my volunteer/leadership roles was to co-facilitate these interactions among young adults from many different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. The experiences were instructive: when groups first got together, their first instinct was to view their own group’s histories in competitive terms: How many were enslaved? How many were displaced? How many were massacred? How prevalent is bigotry toward…?

That approach proved untenable as a way forward. Is there really a hierarchy of bigotry and suffering? Is that a viable or even an ethical way to have an intergroup conversation?

After a while, we developed an alternative approach: what experiences made each group and each individual feel vulnerable, fearful, or misunderstood? No one was dismissive of those feelings since they were so clearly genuine. They weren’t quantifiable. Sharing why they felt those fears led to both empathy and understanding.

However, something happened during those conversations that anticipated today in remarkably and sadly prescient ways. In every conversation, by the end, the sense was that the most vulnerable group was young adult black men. In group after group, we heard black males tell of walking down the street and watching people quickly cross the street to avoid them; we heard of being stopped by police for no reason, or being tailed by clerks in stores, or seeing people clutch their purses or briefcases on busses – or choose less desirable seats to avoid sitting next to them. Every single person who was not a young black male nodded in recognition – in every single session.

I confess I have no recollection whatsoever if we then had the data to confirm what we all now know to be statistically true: the inordinate number of deaths and incarcerations among this population. The real-life experience of being a young black male, of any young black male, is only confirmed by that data, but it was evident even then.

Those sessions led to profoundly greater mutual understanding and empathy. Once we shifted the conversation from “my pain is greater than your pain” to “let’s acknowledge that we all have reason to feel vulnerable” both the character of the sessions changed, and the mutuality of respect grew palpably.

However, what didn’t change was the facts. All of those legitimate vulnerabilities continue today, and given the current ethos and political environment fostered by the Administration, other groups can easily be added to those who met in Chicago 30+ years ago, and make a case for their own victimization and vulnerability. But young black males are still being targeted, victimized, incarcerated, brutalized, and murdered.

We learned in those gathering that one can transfer fear of the other to empathy. As we [hopefully] construct a more just society going forward, that message must prevail. And of course, it must apply to all who feel vulnerable. But even then the message was loud, clear, and poignant even if we didn’t yet have these words to tell us: Black Lives Matter.

#385 – I’m Not Traveling; Why Should my Money? The Surprising COVID-19 and Racial Inequity Dilemmas for Funders

June 15th, 2020

Richard Marker

NB: This was written but not published prior to last week’s announcement by 5 major foundations of issuing debt as a way to get more money to the field. In many ways, that extraordinary development only underscores the dilemma discussed here.

As you may recall, when the COVID-19 quarantine began, I extended an offer to any funder anywhere to provide a pro-bono problem solving session. This post in an extrapolation of some underlying themes that I have gathered from those conversations and from the slew of many articles on funding choices at this time.

What has emerged for me is an interesting challenge from funders of less than mega-means. Choosing where to put funds comes down to hard choices, and those who fund on the local level/place based, are particularly sensitive to the implications of saying yes and no. Yet over the last few years, many of those funders became aware of the need to address systemic issues and were more open to funding national initiatives, sometimes at the expense of place-based funding. [Please see #293, 27 Dec 2017 and #337, 26 May 2019 regarding the significant continuing role for place-based funding, even when a funder is fully aware that the local organizations being funded can never aspire to the excellence of world-renowned organizations in the same fields.]

I cannot imagine that any funder or foundation is unaware of the financial challenges facing all non-profits, and the catastrophic challenges facing some. [I recommend the very recent survey published just this week by CEP on the unevenness of funding at this time.] Surely all funders know that their long-time grantees are in need. And, hopefully, every funder is aware of at least one local collaboration to address the massive local needs – even if that hasn’t previously been a core priority.

Moreover, it has been gratifying to see that hundreds upon hundreds of funders are learning that this is not a time for complex reviews, clever new initiatives, and burdensome reporting. It seems from the data that I have seen reported by others and anecdotal [no claim that it is scientific] evidence, most funders have either sent more money out the door, plan to spend more this year, or have committed themselves to funding new or ongoing needs in the next grant cycle.

Most of this is local.

At the same time, never has the need for systemic redress been more glaring. The funding community had been coming around to understand that band-aid type funding of societal needs of all sorts is far too short-term and nearsighted. Acknowledgement of the role of advocacy, providing support for national organizations addressing systemic issues, and seeing how existing funding aligns with underlying systemic needs has finally been high on the agenda. Both the pandemic and the BLM moment have starkly underscored the validity of those needs.

However, I am hearing, given how massive the local needs are, how can one justify diverting resources from “here” to “there”? Shouldn’t that be the job of the deepest pocketed funders whose focus is rarely place-based directed? Even if “woke” to the needs, perhaps this is the time to pull back from those national initiatives to focus on this place? After all, the putative systemic issues are visible right here – on our streets, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our policing, in our healthcare, in our workplaces.

I don’t disagree with the logic of this thinking, and for many it is a very valid way to go. But I also want to remind of the importance of not losing a connection with the groups with a larger and summative perspective, whose expertise allows alignment between current urgent need and optimal policy so that local funders don’t inadvertently reinforce counterproductive systemic causes, whose analyses of experiences elsewhere might provide a more laser focused use of local funds, and whose understanding of the political landscape might provide leadership in much needed policy reform.

Perhaps a single example will illustrate – and please excuse that this is a summary that elides some important local details: A couple of years ago, not long after we moved to the DC area, the government was shutdown for an extended period of time. The shutdown was felt throughout the country but, not surprisingly, hit the DC area hardest. Many in the local funding community stepped up with a variety of palliatives to alleviate very real hardships faced by many thousands of furloughed government employees and contractors. When the government re-opened, a meeting of many locally based funders was convened to address lessons learned. At the meeting, I [still a newcomer] asked if there had been any conversation with or utilization of material prepared by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. To my surprise, no one in the room had heard of the CDP. As the local funders listed all the things they had learned and their commitment to document those learnings, it struck me that they had spent a long time largely reinventing the wheel – when, in fact, they could easily have adapted many of CDP learnings from many other natural and human-caused disruptions.

It is true, of course, that all politics is local – and most funding for many funders is and should be local. But just as local politics does not and cannot address systemic issues without national policy change, so too local place-based funding without a connection to the larger context in which we operate is insufficient.

Many of us would like to hope that the societal lacunae exposed by COVID-19 and by endemic racism will make this the time to finally address the systemic in real and transformative ways. So, while we absolutely must increase our support for and engagement with our local communities, we do need, as well, not to lose sight of the knowledge and wisdom that can come from continued engagement with organizations and affinity groups that extend beyond our own backyards. It need not be “either/or” but should be “both/and”.

#378 Whatever Happened to Noblesse Oblige? Have We Gone too Far? – A COVID-19 Takeaway

May 15th, 2020

Richard Marker

This is our 12th article for funders, philanthropists, and foundations regarding COVID-19. As always, we welcome your thoughts and reactions to any and all.

Two decades ago, noblesse oblige was still the standard rationale for funders to be charitable and philanthropic. If asked why one gives, the answer was likely to be “to give back.” With riches come responsibilities.
The underpinning of that thinking is that there are those less fortunate who need something that a generous gift might provide. While most funders had opinions about which organizations or causes they cared most about, on the whole giving had a social context, in every sense of the word. Some of that social had to do with communal leadership responsibilities; some had to do with responding to peers’ requests. Most funders didn’t assume that they knew better than those who worked in the fields they funded about how best to use the money, only that the recipients certainly needed it.

Approximately two decades ago, a mostly healthy corrective began to supersede that rationale. For all sorts of reasons, the subjects of all too many books and articles that one can read on this subject, loyalty was summarily discounted as an imperative for supporting organizations, and measuring impact became the new value-added. After all, why continue to support a literacy initiative year after year if people still cannot read? Why do organizations dealing with homelessness warrant support if there are still so many homeless? The motivation for giving thus morphed from altruism to efficacy.

At first, there was denial from legacy institutions. Despite the growing anecdotal and statistical evidence to the contrary, those 20th century institutions convinced themselves that this was simply a temporary or transient aberration. When people got older, got married, got jobs, had kids, their giving patterns would revert to the past practices of their parents and grandparents. As time went on, as the change became more pervasive, it also became more persuasive, and many of those organizations had to pivot to find ways to catch up to the zeitgeist. Some did and some never did.

In the meantime, newer funding models emerged, all of which were based on some sort of measure of impact. There are a variety of models of those systems, often differing on what the true bottom line of effectiveness is, how far out a longitudinal perspective must look, which stakeholders or sectors have the greatest claim, how subjective the giving might allow or how comparatively demanding the objective claim, how “profit sector” they behaved, and more. Not only did funders not feel any assumed loyalty to organizations, but their giving was increasingly conditional. “We will fund this – IF you do that” or “We will fund that as long as you can demonstrate that our metrics are being met.” Not only did it reflect the changed motivation for giving, but it changed the way organizations had to deal with funders.

Implicit in all of these changes was a set of assumptions that have proven all too specious. It assumed that funders knew better than the experts what would work, how to do the work, and what constituencies deserved service. After all, funders made their money in the for-profit world; that alone, they believed, demonstrated that they must know more than those who are stuck in the non-profit world. [Need I say more?]

Over time this led to the institutionalization of attempts to develop standard ratios – such as “overhead” to program, or appropriate balance of sources of income, or cash reserves. Using these new metrics, some organizations began to rate nonprofits, and woe to one whose rating slipped. Eventually, though, most of the raters saw that they were imposing a very limited and limiting set of metrics to a very complex field. Did it really make sense to use the same rating system for a local food pantry as for a university? And if that food pantry were to have a mediocre rating but was the only one in a food desert neighborhood, would that be sufficient reason to discontinue funding it?

Thus, over the last few years, more sophisticated means of determining impact have been developed. [including, inter alia, the cutting-edge methodology developed by the UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy with which I have a part time connection.] These looked more deeply beyond simple-to-measure efficiency and to longer terms effectiveness as a means to decide where to put substantial funding. There is no doubt that our funding world was developing ever more useful way of making sure that our resources were used to bring about the changes we hoped for and in the ways that made the best use of our money.

Then COVID-19 hit.

And, suddenly we recognized that, for all of our sophistication, for all of our rigor, those non-profits on the ground doing the daily hard work were certainly better equipped to know where the immediate needs are, where the preferred interventions should be, how to spend precious dollars, and which skills are most applicable. Our field – or at least 700+ foundations and philanthropy support organizations – avowed [or perhaps acknowledged] that our reporting systems, our proposal systems, our laser focused funding approaches [and perhaps even our investment policies] were no match for the needs of the moment.

Maybe, we had strayed too far from the long standing, seemingly dated noblesse oblige rationale for giving. Maybe our demand for metrics, too often based on our categories, contingent on our priorities, reflecting our own systems overwhelmed the reason for philanthropy in the first place. Maybe, we are being reminded, that altruism is a social value, and that our own demands for systematic analysis everywhere along the line may be handcuffing those whose real job is to provide services to those in need.

Over 20 years ago, my first published article on philanthropy was entitled: “Hubris vs. Humility”. At that time I was the CEO of a major foundation, and I learned how easy it is for us to think we know everything, how fortunate we are to have the resources to try to make a difference, how seductive the power imbalance – and how arrogant so many of my colleagues appeared. [Of course, I never was. 😊] But I also recognized that, not only was that ethically problematic, but it was also pragmatically wrong. After all, it meant that grantees were less likely to be fully honest, that it allowed us to pretend that we are never wrong, and it allowed us to function in a self-referential bubble.

Over the last couple of decades, our field became so committed to the efficacy of impact and results that we often forgot about the nobility of “giving back.” COVID-19 seems to have forced a rebalancing. Perhaps a bit overdue.

Endnotes: I know my colleagues in the field quite well and can anticipate some rebuttals, so permit some addenda:

• Yes, funders sometimes do have perspectives or expertise their grantees lack. But even when a funder is more “right”, implementation should rarely be top down and requires a relationship that allows the “right” and the “real” to become aligned.

• Yes, of course there were always funders who wanted results – even in the days of noblesse oblige. But before the days of impact and metrics, the norm was more typically that funders gave, nfp/npo’s spent.

Yes, due diligence and program evaluation is indispensable. But too often due diligence and the post program evaluations go way beyond gathering information that will truly inform our decisions. If we as funders don’t need the info, why impose extra work on grantees?

Yes, there is great value in research as a basis for sophisticated decision making – but… One admittedly extreme contrary example: in an Advanced Grantmakers course I taught a few years ago, I invited a guest speaker who was considered the national expert on a particular then- hot initiative in the field. It turned out that the expert whose work was widely published, had never met with any foundation, never worked in a foundation, never spoke with any practitioners. I am sure that no one knew more about the research or the laws related to that initiative than the guest speaker. However, the “expert” was fully unable to answer a single question on its functional application from the room full of very experienced funders. Surely this is indeed an extreme example; it does, though, remind us that research that isn’t rooted in real experience is simply a contribution to general academic knowledge, but of questionable value to those who must make decisions on its basis.

Yes, I agree that there are certain times when a restricted gift serves the grantee organization. 2 examples: when a non-profit wants to explore an initiative beyond its core budget; or, perhaps, when it is for a capital project. But in general the tendency of some funders to give only restricted gifts, to be unwilling to fund infrastructure of that same organization, to give for a year at a time, to give less than the amount necessary for the project to succeed, etc. typically handcuffs the recipient organization and limits the ability of that organization to bring the impact the funder claims to want. Our funding should enable the greatest likelihood of the success of a project. That doesn’t mean there should be no limits; it does mean that a funder must make sure the relationship with grantees is open, honest, and trusting. Given the power imbalance, that relationship only works if we as funders enable it to.

Final point: Yes, it is true that I have been teaching and advising funders on how to make good decisions for a long time and hope to continue to do so. So, I don’t want to appear disingenuous in my statements about overreach in due diligence. My hope is that we as funders “right size” our processes and decision making – to make our own lives and the lives of those whom we empower with delivering services easier.

#374 Building Blocks to the “Next Normal”- Health Care

May 8th, 2020

Richard Marker

This post is a continuation of thoughts on what we need to put in place as we rebuild our world. The pandemic has revealed or underscored so many systemic inequities and injustices that it is clear that we will have a lot of work to do, even if we didn’t have deniers, ideologues, and others who want nothing more than to return to some idealized – and never existing – past. Different posts have or will be dealing with many of those issues.

This one has to do with health care:

First a personal story. Going back 2 decades, a time came when I had increasing responsibilities for my elderly parents’ health care decisions. It wasn’t easy for many reasons. One was that they were private/secretive [chose one]. My brother and I were kept in the dark about their medical situations, their preferences, and more. This was particularly challenging when hard decisions had to be made for my father and we had no clue that there were documents specifying his preferences. There were medical interventions that went beyond his written preferences, but we never knew about them, and our mother either forgot or chose not to share them with us. It was only when we were called upon to help resolve his estate that we came upon the documents.

I am sure that this story, abbreviated to be sure, is familiar to many, but it is not the primary part of my narrative with real implications for public policy and medical practice.

The second part of the story does, and this has to do with my mother. After my father’s passing, she went from denial to dementia in rapid order. Our responsibilities grew including taking her to medical appointments. One of the pleasant surprises was to learn that all but one of her physicians were connected to the large University of Pennsylvania health system. And Penn had already instituted shared computerized information between all physicians in the system. Our mother had no clue what her ailments were, what medications she was taking, and more. Fortunately, at every medical appointment, each specialist could promptly identify all of these things. It was a difficult decade but made easier knowing that there was a level of coordinated care that we would simply have been unable to do on our own. [Since we had uncovered that her medical directive was identical to my father’s, when there were genuine end of life decisions to be made, it was very clear to us and to the medical team what to do and what not to do.]

To bring this personal story to a close, let me add my own experience much more recently. As many readers know, we moved from NYC to Washington DC 2 ½ years ago. Among the challenges of relocation is the identification of health care providers. In New York, I had the benefit of having the equivalent of a concierge doctor who coordinated my health care and I lived walking distance to numerous world class institutions. The quality of my care was a luxury, to be sure, but never in question. When moving, I hoped to find a world class health care system that would replicate the benefits of the coordination of information that Penn provided for my mother a decade and a half ago.

Since Johns Hopkins fit the bill as a world class health system, I decided to find specialists who were connected to them. Hopkins had developed a presence in DC, including 2 first rate hospitals and an entire network of affiliated physicians. Seemed like a perfect transition. And, indeed, I have found a number of first-rate specialists with that affiliation. But what I discovered was that, even there, the computer systems are not interconnected. Each department asks for its own information with its own software. While I suspect it is more interconnected for in-patient care [fortunately I haven’t had to find out], it was a bit disconcerting to see that this world class medical system hasn’t found a way for all of its related medical staff to access the same data bases. I am well aware that there are privacy issues – and I am not dismissing them. But privacy should apply to access and not to compatibility.

My own story is only indicative of the shocking and embarrassing gap that has become so glaring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even setting aside the corruption and dishonesty that regularly is spewed by White House officials, what we have seen is that this system that many pretentiously still consider the best is flawed, underprepared, overly dependent on competitive private sector resources, and implicitly exacerbates the inequitable access reflective of race and class divides. Why don’t we have accessible data bases? Why are there shortages of medicines and equipment? Why need there be competition among States, and between the States and the Federal government?

The pandemic has exposed the deepest flaw in the US healthcare system – that insurance should be connected to employment. Why? Why is the US the only major nation with this bizarre – and unjustifiable – approach? [Yes, I do know the history of how we got here, but watching millions of people lose their health care along with their jobs should convince even the most reluctant ideologue that the post WWII approach has become both unsustainable and immoral.]

At this point there should be no reasonable objection that the “next normal” includes health insurance for all. [I don’t care what it is called since any nomenclature has become partisan. I only care that it happens – and, I believe so should our public policy commitment.]

I began with my own dilemma with our flawed system. Let’s face it: my challenges are those of “privilege”. For too many millions, health care access is literally a life and death issue. If we are serious about the “next normal”, that must change.

#373 A Courtesy Offer to Fellow Philanthropists and Other Funders

April 30th, 2020

Richard Marker

This post announces a new, fully gratis, offering to philanthropists and other funders.

Over the last 3 decades, the philanthropy world has been my professional home. I have had the honor of leading foundations, advising many funders from around the world, and teaching or speaking to many thousands more in 40 countries. As with so many of us in the philanthropy and foundation world, I feel that it is a crucial time to give back.

Many of us have increased our financial giving despite – or perhaps because of – the sharp economic decline.

This offer goes beyond that and builds on my expertise: I am now offering a FREE problem-solving session of up to 30 minutes to any funder who wishes [to the extent that my schedule permits, of course.] All you have to do is send a message to [email protected]

[The “fine print”: This is not intended to replace a full consultation that many philanthropy advisors offer; it is ONLY to coach through a specific problem. Also, I am not an attorney so I don’t offer legal advice – but I am happy to respond with best practice advice. Finally, I know virtually nothing about fundraising so please don’t schedule a time hoping that it will help identify funds for a project, investment, or organization.] #philanthropy

#359 – Talking about “Equity” is Easy; Sharing Power is Hard

November 26th, 2019

Richard Marker

It is hard to imagine that anyone in the philanthropy field has not participated in, read about, or been engaged with questions of “equity”. In fact, one would have to be willfully distracted to not be aware of its prevalence over the last couple of years.

Since so much has been written, said, published, and sometimes even implemented, I will take for granted that any reader of this piece does not need a primer. Our genuine concern with underlying systemic issues combined with legitimate concerns with the overt disparity of wealth distribution means that our field has both a mandate and a challenge at the same time. And to the credit of our sector, the discourse has been informed, caring, and purposeful even when there is a wide range of thinking about what all of this means – for us and for public policy.

It is in this context that I would like to comment on a program I attended recently which explicitly was marketed as a “conversation about racial equity.” [Since I don’t have permission of the organization or the speakers to publicly identify them, I will respect anonymity and trust that only a very few readers will know to whom I am referring.]

While advertised as a conversation among trustees, truth be told it was really a series of presentations. That may seem a nitpick but it does mean that I cannot say whether my responses are representative of other funders in the room or not. There is no question that the personal stories of how the presenters, persons of privilege, learned of the depth and reality of racial injustice and inequity were moving and convincing. This sensitivity has clearly influenced their philanthropic giving priorities and even the ethos of the organizations and foundations they head. One can and should applaud their honesty, sincerity, and commitments.

And yet… I kept thinking about the bottom line of how this all plays out. There was only time for one question, and the one question, by a very prominent woman of color [a relevant datum in this context], was the same one I kept thinking about – governance. Who is on the board? Who makes the decisions? What are the implications for family funders who are the source of the money and who have legal control of the money?

As one who has participated in my share of equity related discussions and has observed many more, I was struck by the absence of any reference to some of the mantras that inform our thinking: even if they didn’t use the term “participatory grantmaking” or quote the catch-phrase “nothing about us without us”, I would have welcomed something more than that they were personally awakened, their grantmaking priorities had changed, and even their staffing was more reflective of a racial balance. These things matter and I am not dismissing them.

But in response to the question about governance, the principals on the panel were unequivocal. One said “it is my money and…” Another said, “it is our family foundation and only family can sit on the board.”

This is not a criticism of those forthright and honest answers, but I would have liked a response that showed that they understood the complexity of those answers. Power and privilege are very real. It is naïve to think that there are easy ways to share them or even when or if one should surrender them, but those of us who have that power and privilege need to at least demonstrate that we understand what that means.

The absence of these sensitivities was particularly striking at this event. These are people who really care – in very personal ways, in philanthropic ways, in behavioral ways. They all demonstrated that they knew the difference between tokenism and enfranchisement. They all set a personal standard to which most in the philanthropy field should still aspire. They really do want change and want to model it as well as they know how.

I myself struggle with the line between enfranchisement and empowerment. I don’t know if and when we have a moral and ethical and historic obligation to cede at least some power in the board room, and if so, how far that should go. Especially for family funders, it is a genuine dilemma for which I can’t propose a facile solution.

But, acknowledging that, I still would have liked to see more self-awareness of the governance control dilemma from these thoughtful, caring, and committed funders. If it is that hard even for them to talk about, it is clear how far we have to go, as a field and as a nation, to really redress the deep-seated racial and social inequities that are so endemic to American society.

#358 – It’s That Time of Year Again…The Family Philanthropy Meeting

November 21st, 2019

Richard Marker

Yes, we are approaching that time of year again. You know, the one that Hallmark celebrates 24 hours a day, filled with song and mirth and everyone celebrating together despite the inevitable travails, misunderstandings, and missteps. Somehow, by the end, it all works out perfectly. Sure, why not?

I don’t know for sure, but it is possible that Hallmark doesn’t accurately portray your family, or mine. Let’s face it, in reality, most families, even when they celebrate together, have challenges. Sometimes those challenges are simple differences in style or distance. Other times, competing life expectations are difficult or impossible to ignore.

Many families use these holiday occasions for family meetings. For good reason. It may very well be the only time of the year when almost everyone is in the same place at the same time. If it is a family with shared financial responsibilities, the family meetings can be formal, and if the resources warrant, are often accompanied by non-family specialists such as attorneys or wealth advisors. Other times they are less formal, focused on the normal challenges of multi-generational families regarding senior citizen needs, property maintenance, and the like.

I am not a family systems expert, nor an attorney, nor a wealth advisor. But I do know something about family philanthropy [which requires that I also know at least a little something about family systems, law, and money]. It is often around the philanthropy meetings that the issues of expectations, values, life choices, intergenerational or sibling tensions get played out. The reasons are complex but, in general, it is because the philanthropy conversations can be an indirect proxy for all of the inherent issues of family dynamics. To take one of many possible examples: It may be overtly confrontational to accuse a sibling of being ego-driven and using family resources for personal social gain. It is a lot safer to allude to those things when that sibling insists on having his or her name prominently featured by a charitable entity and to address the implications for the rest of the family. Or for another: it may be awkward to accuse the founding generation of heavy-handed control when they are also the ones who have made your lifestyle possible. But it might be possible to get to that issue of control, circuitously, when that same founder insists that his or her charitable commitments must be endorsed by the grandchildren, even if reluctantly. It is a difficult discussion to be sure, but, when done well, that discussion can be about priorities rather than personality.

That these can be difficult meetings should not mean that they should be avoided. Rather it means that they often can benefit by being carefully planned or even facilitated by someone who understands the full picture. If structured well, with a full empowerment of all at the table, these can lead to a renewed family motivation, unity, and purpose. That does not mean unanimity of style, values, priorities; only that the process can be fulfilling in underscoring that this is a family choosing to honor its heritage, its possibilities, and its potential. There are proven methods to get there, and when done well, can leave a family much more gratified than when they start.

For more than a quarter century, I have had the pleasure of teaching and advising literally several thousands of funders of all sorts. Most of them are family funders. Their starting point when they come to me, or to any of us who is in this sector, is often “giving money away is harder than we thought it would be.”

There are times when deep underlying unresolved family issues are never far from the surface. I have seen late-in-life decisions by founders to create a family foundation in the hope that contentious offspring will find a way to resolve those hostilities with a common legacy and responsibility. Sadly, philanthropy can never magically resolve these kinds of long-simmering, never-resolved family issues – at least on its own.

But for families with a more under-control set of issues, philanthropy can often enhance a family’s ability to appreciate one another and learn to make decisions together. They can lead to shared aspirations for successor generations and for a determination of how their noblesse oblige might be manifest in different places and in different ways.

Where might all of this play out? For many, at the annual family meeting. Since the decisions and feelings that will emanate from this meeting will last far beyond the aroma of even the most delicious holiday leftovers, it is worth putting time and resources into making it a productive and fulfilling experience for all.

Happy holidays.

#352 A Perennial Question for Family Philanthropy: How and When to Engage Next-Gens

October 8th, 2019

Richard Marker

It is said that if one hears something once, it is an anecdote; if twice, it is coincidence; if thrice, it is evidence. Whether or not that evidence is convincing to researchers or evaluators, three identical conversations within a two-day period does suggest that there is something to talk about.

Last week, I attended the annual Exponent Philanthropy conference. I have lost track of how many of these I have attended – going back to the early years under its prior name Association of Small Foundations – but I can attest that it is always one of the best conferences for funders in which I participate. This year my role was strictly as a participating member so the conversations I am reporting were all serendipitous around dining tables [although, it is only fair to say that those with whom I spoke were aware of my expertise in the family philanthropy area] .

The questions were remarkably aligned: when and how should we engage the next generation in our family philanthropy. It is often a challenge – What is the correct age? How to involve them in decision making? And the like.

Interestingly, the conversations all posited a similar approach. “Let the younger family members research some projects and report back to us.” The arguments were of two sorts: this would be a good educational method and/or it is a way to prove their readiness. When I asked their ages, the next gen folks were all in their 20’s and 30’s. I responded, “so you are giving them homework assignments – but not a vote.” In every other way they are grown-ups, perhaps with careers and families, but in these families they are still given homework assignments and not ready for the grown-up philanthropy table. [“Next Gen” isn’t always age related, by the way. In a few situations in which I have been involved, the “next gen” were in their 60’s and still not given autonomy or a real vote!]

There were a couple of differences in the family situations: in one case, they were concerned that the next gen folks simply didn’t care. Their evidence was that they were not interested in “doing the work” involved. In the other cases, those who spoke to me were concerned that they were sensing some resentment that their offspring were only allowed to propose but not considered full participants in decision making.

When I suggested to each of the family groups that they experiment by giving some discretionary giving authority to their offspring, they all responded as if it was a new idea. This is certainly not a profoundly innovative suggestion; it assumes that folk are much more likely to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility than when they are disenfranchised or implicitly infantilized.

Of course, this approach is not without its challenges: it wouldn’t be a surprise if not every successor agreed with their elders about priorities or style or even values. For those who are the founders, or those who finally got to sit in the decision-seats themselves, these challenges can make them reluctant to let go. Better to stall and hope that, as time goes by, the succession will somehow be pain free. But if families are truly committed to engaging those next generations in their philanthropic commitments, enfranchisement is really the only option. [Yes, I know I am simplifying a whole range of complex family relationships in these few sentences, but the principles are pretty much generic even if their implementation may not be so simple or straightforward.]

The other frequent question has to do with when: If young adults are, generally speaking, old enough, what about teens? Aren’t they used to doing homework? And even be graded for it? Am I really suggesting giving them discretionary privileges over some grantmaking decisions?

Youth philanthropy has become a fast growing subsegment in our field. There are community sponsored teen giving circles and there even courses in high schools where students are given authority over considering and deciding among direct giving proposals. Why not extend that to your family giving as well? The discretionary dollar amount should be smaller, but the conversations and the insights may well prove intriguing, to say the least. After all, we have been reminded this summer that a 16-year-old high school student has had the most eloquent voice in climate change discussions – with more clarity about the existential choices we face than any adult political leader! I suspect that families who want their philanthropy to transition between generations would do well to find their own ways to take their teens seriously.

Now, these comments should not be viewed as the single solution to questions of succession, eligibility, or longevity. As suggested above, every family and every foundation have distinct histories and distinct cultures. And the more people and more generations involved in successor generations the more difficult the enfranchisement process becomes. But sometimes simple proven solutions can make all the difference. For the three families with whom I spoke at Exponent last week, it appears that this single change might well address a growing intergenerational dilemma.

[In reviewing this before publication, it seems appropriate to add this postscript. Our field in in the midst of a robust discussion about the legitimacy of transferring wealth between generations or of the continued exercise of privilege that accompanies it. In other settings and posts I can return to these questions of equity. Nevertheless, the issue of engaging successor generations in family decision-making regarding philanthropy even if there is no formal structure can apply regardless of the depth of one’s pockets. These lessons can apply independent of the larger public policy issues we must certainly continue to examine.]