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Posts from the ‘Philanthropy education’ Category

#392 When You Stop Learning, You Stop Knowing

August 17th, 2020

Richard Marker

It has happened in the past; it happened three times in the last 2 weeks: I had registered for a number of on-line networking and educational seminars. When a couple of the other participants, and in one case, a presenter, saw that I was participating, they asked me [in “chat” as we do these things these days]: “Why are you on this? Shouldn’t you be speaking/teaching this?”

A decade or more ago, after I had been an educator and speaker about philanthropy for a few years, I started hearing these questions when I would attend conferences where I wasn’t a speaker, or regional association and affinity group meetings as a member and not as a presenter. It is not up to me to decide if I am or was a thought leader in our field, but it was evident that many others thought of me that way.

This is flattering, to be sure, and I daresay, perhaps immodestly, that they were correct – I could easily have been a presenter in the recent sessions alluded to above, and quite often in comparable settings a decade ago. But just because I could have doesn’t mean that I was wasting my time – or theirs. I learned a long time ago that the minute you think you know everything is the minute you start to become irrelevant.

Different people have different learning styles. Speakers and educators have different presentation styles. Vocabulary [and jargon] change over time. Context matters. Underlying agendas are fluid. Just because one knows something doesn’t mean that one knows all there is to know. Even if I could easily have been a presenter in all of the sessions alluded to above, that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from each. I could pay attention to what other presenters emphasized, how they said what they did, what questions were posed in the “chat”. They made me consider whether their approach was more on target than mine would have been – or less. They made me consider whether some of my business model choices were on target, or seriously flawed.

Even more crucial than affect or style is the recognition that our field, any field, is constantly evolving. Sometimes those evolutions are simply “old wine in new bottles”, but other times there truly are transformative ideas that can profoundly impact one’s thinking. If one rests on one’s “expertise” laurels, it doesn’t take long for that expertise to become dated.

A good example that transcends the philanthropy world is social media. Many organizations originally thought that they would become au courante if they simply developed a website or had a Facebook page but made no other changes in the way they communicated or operated. The proverbial “old wine….” Others, though, recognized that social media is not simply a new marketing tool but a transformative mode of epistemology and human experience. We know now that some of that transformation has been very welcome and some of it quite destructive, but there is no doubt that our world is as different now as print media was to the masses 3 centuries ago.

Expertise, even when legitimately earned, can still be very limited. This is often true of those in the academic world. [I used to be one, so I am not exempt.] One example: Some of you may remember the short-lived L3C fad of some years ago. For those who don’t – it was a pre-B-Corps experiment, heralded as the solution to solving social challenges through a private sector structure. At the time, as part of the curriculum for a course I was teaching for “Advanced Funders”, I invited someone who was considered to have done the cutting-edge legal work on L3C’s to present. No doubt the presenter knew more about L3C’s than anyone – until the funders began to ask questions. What became clear was that this “expert” had NO contact or discussions with anyone who might implement them or include them in their philanthropic problem-solving strategy. I scratched my head wondering how this person could have written what was considered the definitive document without talking to anyone.

Expertise can also be deceptively insular. Examples of this abound in our world of funders. Those who have done very interesting work or developed suggestive new models are often asked to present at conferences and courses. Often [not always, of course] there is no doubt that the work is worth learning about, but the presenter has done so at only one foundation or organization. When asked to extrapolate how to apply it to other situations, perhaps where the resources were more limited or the intended scope was different, the presenter could only report what had been done in the single place. [You can tell, I hope, that I am being as general as possible to avoid naming names or giving identifiable examples. Suffice it to say that it is not a unique phenomenon.] This does not mean that the presenter did not have genuine expertise but the breadth to know how to apply it to other settings was lacking.

Let me be clear that it was not my inherent wisdom that has convinced me of the need to be a lifetime learner. Rather, I learned this being an educator of literally thousands of fellow funders in many countries for two decades – through our own Institute for Wise Philanthropy since 2002, at the now defunct NYU Academy for Funder Education, and at the prestigious high end UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy Funder Education program, has taught me that breadth without depth can be too shallow and depth without breadth can be too limiting. Parochialism is an easy trap and recognized unique expertise can be intoxicating. Both have their place in our ecosystem, and I fully respect those who make those choices. But, I have learned, not my choices.

So, the next time you see me on a Zoom seminar, or someday in the future sitting next to you in real physical space as a fellow attendee at a conference, know this: when you suggest that I could have been the chosen presenter, it will always flatter me, and you may well be correct. But that doesn’t mean that you and I are wasting our time. There is always more for us to learn, and I truly hope that I will never cease being a learner.

After all, the day one stops learning is the day one stops knowing.

Funder Education Offerings

June 28th, 2020

Richard Marker

Here are several funder education offerings with which we are directly involved at this time. Please note that, for the first time, we are offering our own workshops. They are intended to be small seminar experiences.

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The University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy annual funder education course will be held fully online this year. This high-end course is exclusively for Principals, Trustees, and/or chief professional decision makers and attracts funders from around the world. IF a consultant is playing the role equivalent to chief professional officer, s/he is eligible.

For more info: https://www.impact.upenn.edu/funder-executive-education/

Contact: [email protected]
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The Institute for Wise Philanthropy has been educating funders since 2002, either under the auspices of NYU and UPenn, or under contract by foundations, financial service firms, and associations. Thousands of staff, principals, and trustees from foundations large and small from 40 countries have participated in these courses. Now, for the first time, the Institute will be offering seminars under our own label. The first offerings are listed below:

Each of these workshops will be limited to 6 funders from anywhere in the world. The times will be set in consultation with the registrants.

Philanthro-ethics and Equity: Racial, gender, class, and financial justice are the driving questions in our field at this time. This highly interactive workshop, which has been a key offering of our curricula for many years, offers a series of regularly updated proprietary scenarios and case studies that address these and other related issues. They help funders clarify the differences between law, ethics, and best practices, and enables an informed conscious use of self as funders deal with best practices for their own funding practices and their relationship with grantees.

2 half-day sessions: $600/registrant. $500 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.
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Collaborations, Partnerships, Mergers: Collaborations as a funding approach are hot, and can provide a much-needed method to address both local and systemic challenges. Too often, though, that they don’t always work as intended, and some funders become disillusioned. This workshop will describe different types of collaborations and partnerships, and will provide information on what should be decided before entering into any such arrangements, what the differences are between types of collaborations, who or which foundations are not suited to be a partner, what kinds of governance arrangements apply when, and what are the most viable exit strategies. Over the last 15 years, the material in this workshop have been the most requested in our entire repertoire of funder education documents.

1 3-hour session: $350/registrant. $300 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.
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Strategy Process vs Strategic Plans: Why do so many strategic plans gather dust on a shelf or are out of date the moment they are completed? We think it is because they start in the wrong place, and don’t adequately address implementation. This distinct model developed exclusively for funders turns the standard strategy process upside down – beginning with a “deep-dive” into individual and organizational culture and ending with an articulation of “mission/vision.” The approach is now utilized by many consultants, firms, and foundations. Invariably this unit is rated the most mind-changing take-away of our multi-day training programs.

1 3-hour session: $350/registrant. $300 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.
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Among the future offerings will include sessions on Whose Money Is it? Do laws and ethics diverge?; Evaluation Methods; Policy Setting; Exit Strategies; Changing Roles for Philanthropy – How should funders respond.

#379 – Post COVID-19: The Future of Funder Education

May 20th, 2020

Richard Marker

Full disclosure: As discussed below, we have been educating philanthropists, families, and other funders in many settings and under many different sponsorships since 2000. Until now we have resisted suggestions to offer funder education courses or seminars directly through our Institute for Wise Philanthropy. For the first time, we are seriously contemplating offering limited-attendance on-line workshops. This post shares some of our thinking as we move ahead with our planning. To be clear: these webinar/workshops are not intended to supplant the superb funder education program at the University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy with which we are delighted to be connected. However, that program is restricted to principals, trustees, or chief professional decision makers of grantmakng institutions. For all other funders, please keep in touch and watch for our offerings.

Between zooming and cooking, there is still a lot of time to write and think these days. Thank you to so many of you who have commented both publicly and privately on my numerous posts on various media regarding funders’ roles now and in the “next normal” period. There are many more pressing issues at this moment in time than how one educates those who give money, but it is how I have spent a good chunk of my professional life over the last 20 years so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it has been on my mind during the last couple of months.

To remind readers who may not be familiar: Since the foundation I was heading closed in 2002, I have chosen to spend a good deal of time responding to requests to offer workshops and courses for families, philanthropists, and foundations in many places around the world. Some of those have been at NYU and UPenn, some for associations and what are now called Philanthropy Support Organizations, and some for individual funders and foundations.

When I first started doing this in a formal way, not wanting to develop a top down curriculum, I consulted with the organizations most prevalent in our field at the time: the Council on Foundations, the Association of Small Foundations [now Exponent Philanthropy], the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and the Forum on Regional Grantmakers [now the United Philanthropy Forum.] The courses were then jointly conceptualized by what was then known as the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers [now PhilanthropyNY.]. I asked them all one simple question: “What should a funder know?”

There was so much alignment in their answers that it was relatively easy to create a curriculum based on consensus “core competencies” of grantmaking. As the world and our field have evolved over the years, the curriculum has been updated regularly, but the basic concepts and structure have remained viable and vital. I am proud to say that several thousand funders around the world have been direct beneficiaries of that model. Further, it significantly informed my own boutique “philanthropy advisory” model, and it is the underpinning of my quite extensive international speaking.

Until now.

1. Curriculum.
So much has been called into question over the last couple of months, it is forcing me to think about what philanthropy education for funders should look like in the “next normal.” Has this fine-tuned and well-tested curriculum become too dated for funders who have been rethinking strategies, changing ways of relating to their communities and grantees, accepting the overwhelming reality of the systemic disconnects and need for public advocacy, and even what it means for us to have independent and autonomous decision making about where our public benefit resources should be spent? Or, conversely, has all of this reinforced the value of such a structured, sequential, and carefully considered curriculum as a basis for knowing how to make the hard decisions with which we are all faced?

2. Medium:
A lesser but no less challenging question is what the optimal viable medium for this kind of education should now be. 100% of what I have done until now has been predicated on “in-person.” The occasional webinars I have presented have all been for groups where everyone knew each other and had prior in-person experiences. Group learning among funders with an educator in the room, is very different than a group of pictures on a screen with an active chat button. Philanthropy education for funders, built around the core competencies mentioned above, has been most credible when a funder hears the questions other funders are asking, what challenges they face, how they respond to the same sets of questions. And what about confidentiality? Funders want to talk in safe, discreet, and confidential spaces. [see #3b below]. Have we developed sufficient confidence in newer media that this discretion can comfortably migrate – or would it, ipso facto, be one of the inevitable losses that would accrue to accepting fully on-line courses?

3. Educators and Students:
Moreover, given emerging issues identified by such initiatives as “Participatory Budgeting”, “Trust Based Philanthropy”, DEI practices, etc., not only must we examine the content of the curriculum but also both who should be imparting knowledge and who should be in the room.

a. Who should teach:
On the whole, our field has relied on funders to teach funders. To be sure, not every funder is a good educator – something that anyone who has attended sessions at philanthropy conferences can attest. However, a good educator who is a funder with multiple experiences has a much deeper internal data base to respond to the realities of other funders. As our field has become more diverse and the relevant experiences and values are expanded, it raises the expectations of what the content should be and the challenges of determining who should provide it. This issue is probably the easier of the two challenges to address. After all, over the years, we have readily added issues of equity in both our philanthro-ethics and in our strategy units. And there is a long history of inviting co-presenters with a variety of backgrounds and expertise to be co-educators, many of whom reflected much of the now-current diversity lens.

b. Who should be in the room:
The question of whom we should invite/permit into the funder education room is far more complicated. All of us on the funder side are well aware of being “walking dollar signs.” There are few places we can enter without being solicited. Over the years of teaching funders, I am consistently asked to guarantee that no one hoping to raise or manage funds will be there, and every philanthropy conference requires a similar commitment from all attendees and speakers. Sadly, that concern is not ill-founded; I have seen it abused when the participation rules have been loosened or when someone simply cannot resist the temptation to sell to wealthy funders. Yet if we are now talking about developing a new relationship between funders and nonprofits, if we take seriously the “nothing about us without us” mantra, if we believe that our advocacy requires a full mutuality, is the implication that we need to develop a new model that removes the divide and invites funders and the npo/ngo side of the sector together? Or would the funder community consider that a step too far? Is there a way to have separate education for funders precede subsequent joint learning?

4. Systemic Change.

The final question has to do with the centrality of systemic change as a new primary essential core competence. We have always underscored that understanding the interconnection between public policy and private philanthropy is a sine qua non for contextualizing where our field is and where it has come from. Once aware, we have felt, it would be hard to make a grant, any grant, without thinking about what its relationship to existing or preferred public policy. Is it better to support that local food pantry or support advocacy for increased SNAP funding? Or both? Is it better to fund that in-school arts project or to advocate for the restoration of those funds? Or both? You understand.

But COVID-19 has laid bare the scope of systemic dysfunction that leads to food insecurity, fiscal uncertainty, health-care vulnerability, the fragility of our cultural institutions, and yes, instability of our civil liberties and civil society. It is one thing to make sure that funders know of the legitimacy of advocacy funding; that is something we have taught all along. Perhaps, though, we must now say that any philanthropy education that doesn’t start with the centrality of our role in addressing systemic questions is insufficient and doesn’t fully acknowledge our unique role.
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There are a lot of changes that await us as we delicately and thoughtfully move into a “next normal.” Those changes do and will touch every part of our lives. If there has ever been a time when our philanthropy work matters, it is now. It matters best when that work is informed by a deep and profound understanding of what our roles should be and how we can best play those roles. We have endorsed that mandate for a long time. Looking at the “next normal,” it would be irresponsible for those of us who are philanthropy educators to avoid the serious discussion about what a funder should know now.

Especially now.

Dear reader: Your thoughts and reactions will certainly inform both our continuing work and our new offerings going forward. I urge you to share them with us and your colleagues.

#362 20 Years Teaching Funders from Around the World: Lessons Learned

February 17th, 2020

Richard Marker

Let me get the self-congratulatory stuff out of the way at the beginning. Feel free to skip to ¶ 4:

In 2000, while still the CEO/EVP of a foundation that closed in 2002, I was invited to begin teaching funders at a new [now closed] NYU department, the Center for Philanthropy. At the time, I was only marginally better trained in the philanthropy field than those I was teaching [although by then I already did have 32 years of family, trustee, academic, and professional experience], but I had become convinced that such education mattered – and still does. After all, what arrogance that those of us in the foundation field that we could have all the power, have only self-authenticating wisdom, and no independent barrier to entry to ethically and responsibly give away billions of dollars. [see # 7 below] When invited, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility not only to dig deep into my own diverse and relevant personal and professional background, but, more important, to include the accumulated knowledge of the key institutional players in the field at the time, all of whom I consulted.

Since then, I am proud to say that, on a very part time basis, I have taught well over 2000 funders from about 35 countries at NYU’s Academy for Funder Education [now closed] and, since 2016, at UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy. In addition, I have lectured in 40 countries and in many States, been a guest presenter at innumerable conferences and associations, and advised a significant number of families. The folks I teach are peers: philanthropists and foundation professionals and others of us on the funder side of the table.

Over these 20 years, I have worked hard to fine tune a helpful methodology for both teaching and giving, to articulate key philanthropy ideas, and to continue my own learning as our field expands, evolves, and matures. Moreover, there is no doubt that my work as a quondam philanthropy advisor, now much reduced, has been influenced by my experience with so many hundreds of funders from so many places. It has provided a massive internal database that could never be replicated were we to have developed a more typical philanthropy advisory practice.

¶ 4: In looking back at these 2 decades, here are some lessons learned:

1. Interrelationship between Public Policy and Private Philanthropy Matters: Anyone who has heard me lecture or teach over these 20 years knows that philanthropy cannot be fully understood independent of public policy. Moreover, it is almost impossible to ignore how crucial advocacy is to setting those policies once one is aware of how they impact the role and effectiveness of our philanthropy. I am delighted that this conversation has now finally moved to the center of discourse surrounding philanthropy’s role in society and is being led by many more well-known than I.

2. Every Funder is Unique and Every Funder is the Same: This apparent oxymoron is the reality of our field. People become philanthropically involved for all sorts of reasons. Those individual narratives need to be acknowledged and heard. But once beneath the surface, all philanthropy decisions prove generic. The challenge, as an educator or advisor, is how to get there.

On the international level, this is even more true. Everyplace has its own culture, history, ethos, and legal system. If one doesn’t honor or understand those differences, funders will never pay attention to the classic and generic core competencies that define our field. As mentioned above, I have had the honor of speaking in 40 countries. One must learn to listen very carefully in order to teach effectively and to be taken at all seriously.

3. The Need Continues: A few recent meetings with individual foundations and at speaking engagements have persuaded me that we have only begun scratching the surface of structured and impactful funder education in our sector. The questions of behaviors and practices, roles and responsibilities, expectations and impact that some have been fine tuning for many years are still brand new for many. Far too many philanthropists and funding organizations still function in isolation with little awareness of recommended norms, decision making methodologies, ways of evaluating what or why they are funding, and their larger potential as thoughtful self-aware contributors to a community’s wellbeing. The emerging field of “Philanthropy Service Organizations” [of which we view our Institute for Wise Philanthropy to be an integral part] still only represents those funders who have chosen to affiliate.

4. The Gratification of Helping Funders Learn Best Practices: One of the thrills of teaching is helping the entire potential of our field open up to those who had only a limited understanding. After 20 years, there is a wonderful litany of funders from around the world who have told us what a difference our teaching has made. Needless to say, how we teach has become fine-tuned, and what we teach continues to evolve, but the core competencies recommended by the field in the early aughts continue to inform and frame what every funder should know and what competencies should apply no matter what values, goals, or contexts of one’s funding.

5. The Importance of Affirming Rediscovery: If one has been in the field for a long time, one sees articles offering insights many of us had years ago, or re-inventing approaches that were new many times ago. I have seen numerous articles by other experienced thought-leaders express exasperation with the periodic attention given to those who claim to have invented the proverbial wheel. I know that I myself have to take a deep breath and respect these insights as a reflection of genuine learning. Whether I – or many others – had the same insights or used the same techniques or asked the same questions 2 decades ago or longer matters little to those for whom it is brand new.

Reading articles or press releases or reports that show the most recent innovations in our field, as if they are brand new, may yield a moment of disappointment that those folks never heard of those of us who published or spoke about a lot of those ideas a long time ago, but being an educator has helped me a lot in accepting that as normal. After all, for many centuries, students have read Plato or Maimonides or Shakespeare. Lo and behold, each generation of students comes to much the same understandings as their predecessors. It is the role of an educator to foster those understandings, to encourage those “aha” moments, not to deflate the enthusiasm of newly enlightened readers that what they are now “getting” is old news.

6. The Best Philanthropy Educators have had Multi-Sector Experience: Over the years of organizing courses and attending conferences, I learned something about what kind of background is most likely to produce an effective educator for fellow funders. Of course, good communication skills matter, but beyond that is having a deep range of experience. Those who are identified with only a single, albeit prestigious, foundation may have interesting things to say to the field, but rarely have the scope of experience to respond to the predictable array of funders in any seminar, workshop, or classroom.

7. My Biggest Frustration: This has been my broken record for a long time, and I fear will be long after I disappear from this scene.

It is unconscionable that there is no credential, no formal barrier to professional entry to this field. As suggested in paragraph 2 above, we give away billions of dollars, we are responsible for the well-being of an entire sector, and we can have real influence on public policy. Yet, unlike virtually every other professional field, including fundraisers, one need not know anything about the law, or best practices, or philanthro-ethics to be hired or have a career as a philanthropy consultant, advisor, or program officer. Of course, one cannot legislate what one does with one’s own money, but I believe that there should be a widely recognized credential for professionals that shows that one has knowledge of the basics. [I am not arguing that it need be a precondition to being hired since there are many good reasons to hire folks with other competencies and expertise, but it should be an expectation of every grantmaking professional within the first few years in the field.]

So that no one misunderstands: there is no one right way to give money, no one right set of priorities, etc. But there are many wrong ways. And any of us who have been in this field for a long time know that. I may have my own opinions about what education should inform the credential I would like to see, and I am more than happy to participate in a long overdue discussion since my opinions may not be adequate or even the emerging consensus. This will only work if the field as a whole endorses the validity of a credential and buys into certain core knowledge. [End of soapbox]

8. My Second Biggest Frustration: This one is more personal. I have been surprised by how many, especially those connected to affinity organizations in our field, are suspicious of my motivations to teach, mentor, and provide career advice. I guess I must bear some of the responsibility for this in the way I communicate my commitment, but I have learned that many seem to believe that I teach funders primarily as a way to generate personal business. It is certainly true that over the 20 years, a few, but only a very few of those who took university-based courses have contracted with me for some advisory help, but if I were teaching these courses with that purpose, I certainly have failed and would have stopped a long time ago. [In fact, for a long time, until I was dissuaded from doing so, if a “student” approached me, I would insist on giving the names of at least 2 other advisory firms to whom they should speak.] In any case, after 20 years, I wish I understood why that suspicion seems to persist.

9. Teaching is a superb discipline for keeping your thinking fresh, your knowledge up to date, and your ability to communicate well honed. No, this is not limited to philanthropy education – it is descriptive of what every good educator knows. In my case, teaching has had a salutary impact on my role as a funder, trustee, advisor, and speaker – and each of those roles has had a positive impact on my teaching.

Our field of philanthropy really can and does matter a lot, well beyond what our combined financial assets can accomplish. It is important that we set standards of thoughtfulness, ethics, and self-awareness in doing so. It has been a true honor and privilege to be recognized as someone who has helped reinforce those standards by imparting knowledge in and to my own field in so many settings around the world.

20 years…and counting.

#347 The ICYMI Series: Do You Want to Work in a Foundation

August 13th, 2019

Richard Marker

Originally posted on 31 May 2011; slightly revised. Over the years, it has been one of the most read and popular posts and most of it is still quite applicable today.

When this post was first written, it was during my 11th year teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals in special university offerings. This post was one of a series of reflections on a decade of teaching funders at the oldest and most comprehensive university program of its kind. Sadly, NYU’s Academy for Funder Education no longer exists. Happily, UPenn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy

The very first course I taught was one of the first three offered by NYU’s Center for Philanthropy, and was intended to introduce fundraisers to the other side of the table. It was entitled “Do you want to work in a foundation?” At the time I was still heading a now closed foundation and was able to host the entire course at the elegant offices of that foundation.

Much to the surprise of the then new NYU Center [now closed], a large percentage of the attendees were already working in a foundation and were anxious to build a knowledge base. In subsequent articles and postings, I will expand on what we teach, why, how it has developed over the past decade, and more. However, here, I would like to return to that very first question.

Interestingly enough, that question was quite prescient – albeit in an unintended way… it is in fact a question I am asked, one way or another, on a regular basis. After all, what could be better than giving money away? Surely it must be better to give money than to raise it. What follows are some of the responses I give during these “informational interview” type meetings.

A. Are you temperamentally suited to do this work? This seems like a strange question but many people have unrealistic expectations about what giving money away entails:

Are you prepared to say “no” much more than you can ever say “yes?” Any funder, volunteer or professional, is well aware that one has to reject a very high percentage of requests. [That is true for all of us, but the difference between an individual simply discarding all of the unsolicited fundraising requests and an institutional funder is that many of those requests are consistent with the funder’s stated mission and part of our job. There are simply too many.] This, as most funders will tell you, is much harder and more demanding than it may appear.

Are you prepared to be a walking dollar sign? Once one is identified as being a funder or a gatekeeper, it is absolutely guaranteed that every social event will become an opportunity for a veiled solicitation. Years ago, the day that it was announced that I was going to head a foundation, Mirele and I were at a reception. On the way home, she said, “we had better learn not to become cynical.” All evening people lobbied her to lobby me for their pet projects. I can assure you that to this day, as soon as someone finds out what I do, I am solicited. It may be the first or third paragraph, but it is absolutely predictable that it will happen. One has to have the temperament and judgment to know who is a friend and who is an opportunist [albeit with the very best intentions].

Are you prepared to have someone else take the bow for your success? If you are a responsible foundation professional, your job is to enable someone or some organization do what you are funding. They may thank you, but the credit for the success of the project quite properly should be theirs. Is your ego sufficiently in check so that all of your hard work can be someone else’s reward? If one is used to being the programmer or executive of a non-profit, it is quite an adjustment to assume a supporting cast role [important but still supporting.]

Are you prepared to have almost no measurable way to determine if you are dong a good job? After all, a fundraiser knows that more money was raised or more donors gave. But a foundation professional has little say in how much is given in total each year. And the number of grants given is hardly a measure of the effectiveness of the foundation’s strategy. Ironically, at a time when funders are looking for outcome measures from their grantees, it is at least as difficult to measure the success of a program officer’s work. If you get your satisfaction by meeting or exceeding objective measures, you aren’t likely to find the work of grantmaking to be as gratifying.

Are you comfortable with spending a lot of time doing office work? Much of the work of professional grantmaking involves reading proposals, checking out the non profit, writing up board and staff summaries, and keeping current with the fields in which funding takes place. Only a small percentage is “out there”.

B. These questions are not to discourage but to add a bit of reality to what is often a too romanticized career. If though, you feel that these questions still leave you excited, there are some additional considerations.

Do you need to work? If you do, planning a career working for a foundation is not a statistically reliable career plan. There are simply too few jobs. But of course they do exist. As this list will show, it is advisable to think more generically than simply looking at traditional private and independent foundations.

The large foundations typically hire those with content expertise, and assume that they will send their staff to our courses, or teach how to be a funder in-house. Very rarely will they look to hire philanthropy generalists. If you want to work in the big-name foundations, the best way is to make sure that your professional and academic training are in line with their giving priorities. Medium and smaller foundations are more likely to hire a generalist, but realistically, only rarely do these positions get posted.

There are many other opportunities to use these generic skills. Big umbrella charities [e.g., United Way, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federations, American Cancer Society, Donor Advised Funds, etc.] all need allocation specialists whose job is quite similar to a foundation program officer. Once the money is raised, these professionals play a crucial role in the effectiveness of these large and well-established organizations.

State and municipal entities have grants programs in arts, humanities, public affairs, etc. which also call for similar skills. [When this was first written, this was more true than today.]

There are a growing number of outsource firms and consulting firms which provide grants management and leadership for funders. Some are full service, others niche players. The skills and competencies which are called for are much the same as a foundation officer, but one step removed.

C. While no one can guarantee a grantmaking position, there are steps one can take to enhance one’s competitive position:

If you are not in the sector, it is very useful to serve on a non-profit board to learn something about the way decisions are made.

Attend public lectures about trends in philanthropy so that one can learn the terms and categories of the field. This is not simply a matter of learning the lingo; it is also demonstrates that the way in which funders approach questions may be quite different than the way other professions do.

Take courses. This recommendation may sound self-serving, but if one’s professional background is close and one’s experience is relevant, taking courses can help round out one’s competitiveness [to say nothing of adding crucial knowledge].

Network. There is no better way to get on short lists of candidates, especially for small to medium sized foundations, than to hear of positions through networking. [Please remember that all the networking in the world won’t help if you don’t have other credentials or relevant experience.]

Win the lottery. The only guaranteed way that you can work in grantmaking is to have your own money.

Is this all sobering? It is supposed to be since so many of those with whom I meet have less than realistic understandings of what they would do all day as full time funders.

Having said that, being a funder, professional or volunteer, can be one of the most gratifying ways in which one can spend one’s life. One can indeed make a difference, usually in small yet meaningful ways, occasionally in larger and influential ways. And one can take pleasure in knowing that, every day, one is helping to shape the character and values of our society. What can be better than that!

#314 The Nuances of Nomenclature – and How They Befuddle Philanthropic Discourse

June 26th, 2018

Richard Marker

Philanthropy education matters to me – a lot. So, not surprisingly, when WINGS-Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaking Support, an international organization of which we are members, undertook a careful look at what is universal or generic vs what is culturally specific, I recommended that one of the ways to get at this is to develop international philanthropy education standards.

Over 16 years ago, when I was invited by NYU to develop a university based professional certificate program, I consulted with the organizations that defined the philanthropy field at that time. There was a remarkable consensus on what a funder, any funder, should know. And thus, with their participation, we developed a set of core competencies as a basis for the certificate credential. [In retrospect, I recognize that my evangelism for the importance of philanthropy education and certification did not have the same priority for those original partners, some of whom expressed exasperation with my impatience. On the chance that some are reading this, my apologies. It has taught me about the mistakes one can make in making assumptions about a sustaining partnership.]

Those concepts, regularly adapted and updated, have been the underpinning of the part of my career as a philanthropy educator. While only a part of my involvement in this field, that educational role has led me to speak and teach in 39 countries, taught funders from 26 countries at NYU and Penn, and has included funders of all types and inclinations.

The core concepts the field developed in 2002 and updated regularly since still make sense. But, make no mistake, they need to be contextualized for every situation. Scandinavia is not Latin America, and neither is Spain like China. Moreover, family funders are all different even as they are all the same. If one appears to be only US-centric, or oblivious to local laws, history, and culture, it will be hard to get to the underlying universal aspects that define decision making.

A recent exchange with the Ben Bellegy, executive director of WINGS, emphasized the complexity of nomenclature. [Our educational arm, Wise Philanthropy Institute, is a member of WINGS.] Our conversation was about the centrality and necessity of educational competencies and credentialing as an integral component to an international infrastructure supporting philanthropy. He responded that, in his view, US philanthropy is qualitatively different than in the rest of the world. He argued that in the USA, our primary emphasis is on grantmaking, while in the rest of the world that is often only an incidental component.

As I have thought about his observation, I have been struck by how much of his observation is not philanthropy behavior per se but about nomenclature. For example, the word “foundation” can have very different legal meanings and therefore radically different ground rules. “Non-profits” and “Non-governmental” organizations are not necessarily synonymous. Not only are they often different kinds of legal entities, depending where one is, but imply very different concepts of what is “normal” and what is “non-…” normal.

Mr. Bellegy’s concern was that using grantmaking competencies as a basis for internationally endorsed credentials is far too American centric. As I thought about it, I realized that I myself had not been using the “grantmaking” label for several years but not because of its American-centrism. I found it too constricting to describe what we do and what we teach. Philanthropy is about a vision of society, an understanding of the totality of ways in which voluntarism can influence the public weal and public policy and engage civil society toward its betterment. Some of that is through traditional grantmaking, but that hardly describes the totality. Different funders will choose a different balance of how they use their own resources, of course, but most use a robust combination. Moreover, the role of how that manifests is very dependent on local culture, history, ethos, and law. In highly taxed, socially supportive societies like most of Scandinavia, the role of philanthropy will be very different that in the USA which only begrudgingly provides educational and human service support to its citizens.

In truth, while much of what we teach might be called grantmaking, at bottom it is about making choices. If we are competent at teaching competencies, those whom we and others teach are better able to make wiser, informed, and ethical decisions about the abundance of challenges and choices before us. Much of that has to do with allocating funds, but it also has to do with advocacy, creativity, influence, convening, leadership, values, and empowerment. Those are universal characteristics of the field of philanthropy, and not restricted to any one nation, region, or religion.

Having said that, cultures do differ. Laws differ. Histories differ. Politics differ. Families differ. To say that there are universal categories that define all philanthropy is too facile. Unless one honors the differences and the contexts in which those differences play out, one can never comfortably or credibly get to the generic range of choices.

Some years ago, I was honored to be invited to conduct an all-day workshop for 100 philanthropists from around the world. No Americans were invited except for me as the facilitator. The subject matter was trends in family philanthropy, and best practices in succession – what some call “next-gen”. At the end of the day, the chair who was from South Africa stated that before we started, he was skeptical that there was anything to learn. However, as the day progressed, he said, he realized that everything I and others talked about described his own family. He had never realized that their own challenges were generic and universal. He was somewhat liberated to know that his family was not the only one facing certain challenges, but that he also realized that his own community challenges required that he approach those challenges with both a general perspective and local sensiTIvIty. He got the message.

I still believe in the indispensability of philanthropy education as a core component of our sector’s credibility and potential. But as this exchange suggests, just agreeing on terms and nomenclature is itself a challenge, and that is even before we agree on the content of the education. The challenge for WINGS, and for all of us who work and act in this sphere is to learn how to articulate and distinguish what is exclusively local, and what is in fact generic. Some of that has to do with nomenclature, some of it has to do with knowledge. Most of all, it has to do with finding ways to help our sector so that we accomplish the impact and the good that we all stand for.

#307 Philanthropy Advisor or Philanthropic Advisor

May 7th, 2018

Richard Marker

Quite frequently, when I speak at an investment related conference, I am asked about what a philanthropy advisor does, and how one chooses among us. Not so surprising that I am asked since, after all, philanthropy is why I am invited to speak. What is surprising is how many don’t realize that there are those of us with this expertise.

In choosing, there are many subjective factors, of course, such as compatibility, but there are also substantial differences in what one does, how one does it, and what the business models are. Periodically, it is useful to give some perspective to new readers, and remind older ones, to help you make appropriate choices.

Some of what I do professionally is to advise funders, philanthropists, families, and philanthropists in their philanthropy decision-making priorities and style. It is a growing field and can include those from a variety of other professions: wealth management, trust and estates, family systems, content expertise, family offices, non-profit management, and more, as well as those of us with extensive background in the philanthropy sector on the funder side. Since there are no barriers to entry, it is very much “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. Does the advisor know about and have experience in philanthropy, or about the finances of philanthropy, or about family issues, or about the fields that are a funder’s priorities?

Even among those of us with extensive and relevant professional background, there are a wide variety of business models: Some charge straight fees, some a percentage of assets or giving, some prefer retainer arrangements, some a smorgasbord of services – pay as you go. And more, I am sure. Each business model has its legitimacy, but it is important for any funder to fully understand what they are, how they compare, and ultimately, what is best for the funder. [To take our firm as one illustration: we only provide advisory services on strategy, evaluation, and inter-generation matters; we charge on a project-fee basis, determined by how long a project is estimated to take; and we do not accept any management or retainer contracts. Our model is perfect for funders who want an independent advisor who has no longer-term agenda beyond what we offer, but it is not very appropriate for someone looking for “full service,” or ongoing management of their philanthropy or a part time program officer or an impact investment guru.]

Having determined the relevant expertise, it is also useful to learn something about our methodologies. Most good advisors will probably get you where you need to be, but we may not all get you there the same way. We should be able to articulate why we do it the way we do and show you how our method can be implemented in your situation both during the “process” and after. Not so good advisors give you advice that gathers dust.

My final point is a bit of a nit-pick. Some use the term “philanthropic advisor” and others “philanthropy advisor.” I have a strong preference for the latter. After all, I would hope that any and all of us in this field, and many other fields, are philanthropic. We should all be philanthropic, generous with our time and money, as are many with totally unrelated expertise. But to be a “Philanthropy” Advisor should mean that we bring expertise, experience, and perspective to the services we provide.

Our field is responsible for granting and investing billions of dollars, sustaining an entire sector, influencing public policy, and visioning more equitable societies. I certainly hope we are philanthropic, but even more that we are experts in the humbling and even sacred work of philanthropy. Any client deserves no less.

#302 What Wealth Advisors Should Learn from the Philanthropy World

February 26th, 2018

Richard Marker

If you are a wealth advisor [or relationship manager, or any of a myriad of other titles for managing other people’s investments], you have seen the studies. Year after year, they consistently show that your clients may be pleased with the investment service you give them, but, as a rule, they don’t believe you are up to speed with your philanthropy advising. Moreover, they consistently show a disconnect between your self-perceptions and those of your clients.

There are numerous explanations:

1. For many, the simple answer is that it isn’t your job. Your job is to maximize value in a trusted relationship with your client. You make them as much money as you can according to a predetermined risk factor and anticipated longevity. Your compensation is based on money under management. [we’ll return to this point in a moment.]

You have no objection to philanthropy as an objective, and indeed are delighted when wealthy clients establish foundations or trusts so you can provide investment services to those entities, a win-win solution. Thus, you gladly have a “philanthropy” conversation, but all too typically as an investment vehicle.

But ultimately philanthropy is not an investment vehicle but represents money out the door for social good. It isn’t what you are trained or paid to do so it doesn’t occupy a lot of planning time. You may discuss the idea of philanthropy, especially vis a vis taxes [see #2] but your expertise rarely extends to how to spend the money to accomplish a social good. Clients who want a constructive conversation on philanthropy are often disappointed because, for them, philanthropy is what good they might do with the money they have made, not how they invest it.

2. Many wealth advisors do discuss philanthropic vehicles, but all too often only as a tax reduction or avoidance strategy. Where your clients spend it isn’t your concern, but properly structured, philanthropy can certainly reduce the tax burden. Indeed, l have heard multiple wealth advisors brag how they can use philanthropy to get their clients’ taxes down to $0. [Long time readers know how I feel about that!]

Studies have consistently shown, though, that tax savings is not a primary motivator for being philanthropic or altruistic. Taxes and tax savings may influence the specifics of how one structures ones giving, but if one isn’t altruistic or generous, it won’t be any more – or less – satisfying than any other tax reduction vehicle. But those who do want to be altruistic ultimately have a different set of concerns and questions, and whether to set up a trust or a private foundation or a DAF or even an LLC may be real solutions, but only as long as they are solutions to the real questions a client wishes answered. Yes, the vehicles matter, but they satisfy clients only if they reflect the values they want conveyed through them.

Philanthropy is ultimately not about maximizing value but maximizing values. So, as many very well-intentioned wealth advisors and trust attorneys do, simply asking about philanthropic interests and presenting structural alternatives without a deep understanding how philanthropy works is not satisfying to a client.

3. The next challenge is a very legitimate legal and structural issue. You are required to define who is your client and have a legally defined trusted relationship with that client. Often, though, philanthropic planning is a multi-generational matter. Even if the client is the only one expressing interest to you, without understanding the functional dynamics of a family, a perfectly legal and efficient solution may be far from efficacious and even counterproductive down the road.

Don’t misunderstand. I am well aware that many of you do try hard to establish relationships with the others in a family, some very successfully. But even then, most members of the family know to whom you are ultimately responsible and can sense your primary loyalty. [After a lot of years in this business, I can report that there are many foundations and trusts that handcuff or disempower or even antagonize surviving family members because the founder’s attorney did what was legally required but strategically flawed.]

This structural dilemma matters because only a very few people of wealth ever look beyond their wealth advisor or estate attorney for philanthropy advice. As one who speaks frequently at conferences for family offices and wealth managers, I regularly find myself meeting those of wealth or their advisors who express surprise that there are those of us whose expertise is philanthropy per se, and not money managers who happen to specialize in managing philanthropic assets.

Which brings me to the two key takeaways of this piece:

4. What do philanthropy advisors do – and how wealth advisors can collaborate with them?

Philanthropy advisors help their clients [individuals, foundations, families, and other entitles that distribute money] make good, informed, and ethical decisions. A philanthropy advisor can help determine what a funder’s goals and values are, whom they want involved in their decision or legacy, what style of giving is most consistent and meaningful, and what impact they want their giving to have, and for whom. Some advisors are “full service” – supporting every stage in the process including decision making and back office support; others are specialists in one or another area along the continuum such as strategy or family systems or evaluation or are specialists in a particular content area.

Very rarely do philanthropy advisors manage a client’s money.

Therefore, philanthropy advisors are rarely your competitors. On the contrary, they can be partners or collaborators who can help you do your job better. That collaboration can work so the services provided to a client can be seamless.

Most philanthropy advisors define a “client” as the entire family or the entire foundation. It is quite common that, to do their job, a philanthropy advisor may need to challenge the stated priorities and assumptions of the “founder”. It may not always be comfortable – for the founder or the other professionals, but it may be the optimal long-term way to go.

Experience has taught me to add a caveat to wealth advisors: philanthropy advisors are usually at the end of the financial food chain and rarely are they a source of investment business for wealth mangers. The reason for collaboration is not to get new business but to serve your clients’ full range of needs and interests more effectively.

5. What can wealth advisors learn about their investment approaches from the philanthropy world?

For well over a decade, the philanthropy/foundation world has been absorbed by the idea of “impact.” Why spend money, however well intentioned, if at the end of the day it doesn’t reduce poverty or illness or illiteracy or homelessness…? Results matter.

A derivative corollary to that is that there can and should be an alignment between how one spends one’s money and how one earns it. If one wishes to reduce illness or pollution, it is surely very dubious that investments in fossil fuels or tobacco make very much sense.

In the philanthropy sphere, this is not new. It has been discussed and finely honed for quite a while, and there are robust answers at every philanthropy, family office, and investment conference. There is now a maturity of the field, a growing range of credible options, and a conviction that impact and values-based investing need not be an outlier in any viable philanthropy investment strategy.

Here is the emerging news: What works for funders and foundations can work for individual investors as well. Many, especially but not restricted to younger funders, are beginning to ask about values-based funds or approaches beyond the philanthropy realm. Far too many money managers still think of these approaches as financial compromises or outside of mainstream investing. If a money manager resists, you may be sure that others are eager for the business. [In our own case, we made it clear to a money manager with whom we were working that that we were prepared to change because she tried to dissuade us from values-based investing. She studied up, learned a bunch of things that surprised her, and withdrew her objections.]

Those of us in the philanthropy sector have been at this for over a decade. Impact investment isn’t a panacea, and not every approach is a slam dunk, but alignment of values and investment should be a no brainer for every investor. And if you are a wealth advisor and need help understanding how this can work for your clients, I know a lot of folks in the philanthropy sector who would be happy to help.

Afterward:

A number of readers have asked for more specific recommendations how wealth advisors and philanthropy advisors can collaborate. Please contact us directly for a “how-to” list of several proven ways..

#295 Institutional Memory Does Matter

November 15th, 2017

Richard Marker

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a very respected colleague in our philanthropy field. He and I are contemporaries, but I daresay he is better known than I, a detail of some relevance to this post.

Our conversation veered into observations about developments in and the state of our field. For many reasons it is growing, there is both consolidation and expansion at the same time, there are those pushing philanthropic giving into more assertive spaces, there is a recognition of both the expansive capacity and the severe limits of what philanthropy can accomplish, and, for both of us, a sense that not everything that is purported to be new really is.

About that last point: Both of us have been in the field long enough to find others “discovering” things that we had, ourselves, done or written about a long time ago. We are both bemused that the eureka discoveries are simply rediscovering what so many have said before. There is an admitted ambivalence in seeing these things: we could constantly post corrective references to our own writings and accomplishments – to remind folks of our contributions to the field of philanthropy learning, or, alternatively we can accept that everyone needs to learn philanthropy practice in his or her own way, at her or his own pace, and it is ok for them to claim discovery.

As a quondam university educator, I learned very early on, that, for students, if they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. It mattered not that a year or 5 or 10 or 20 years earlier, other students had planned the same activity, studied the same text, written the same insights. The very process of learning those same things is indispensable to education. Otherwise, I came to understand, one would have a hard time justifying teaching Aristotle very year! So as tempting as it was to tell the students what their predecessors did wrong or right, and it would have been so much more efficient to have done so, it would have been a counter-productive disempowerment. It took more of my time and patience, but the long-time result was far superior.

So, as I said, my better-known colleague and I have learned to smile knowingly, hold our tongues, and keep silent as others take bows for their “innovations” and “insights.” Probably as it should be.

But perhaps not always. It is one thing for individuals to learn anew what comprise best practices, how not to abuse the power imbalance, and the challenge of saying “no” to so many. But it is something quite different to find a shocking absence of institutional memory among the many organizations and affinity groups in our field. One of the costs of the absence of institutional memory is forgetting that our field matters, and always has. We are responsible, collectively, for billions of dollars, an entire sector, and a great deal of public policy. We are not the sole supporters, the sole influences, and the sole determiners of public policy. But we do matter.

Institutional memory should be in play when challenges to the public weal are prevalent; when civility has become a rare and precious commodity in public discourse; when public policy is set by the highest bidder. Only our field has the independence to call it out. We have the independence – and I would say the responsibility – to advocate for decency, support for the most vulnerable, the interconnectedness of our policies with our funding priorities. This is not a new role for philanthropy: most of the patriarchs [yes, most but certainly not all were men] in our field understood this. Whatever their motivations and personal histories, they came to understand that polity requires civility, that civility requires equity, and that equity is only possible with the financial resources to make it so.

Institutional memory would have saved the time and money needed to hold summits to address what many have said before, what many have said long before my colleague and I said these things. Our advocacy and involvement in public policy are not new, and not only brought about by the current fragile state of our democracy, but have always been there. And we have paid a price as many have been reluctant or slow to speak, advocate, connect the dots, and recognize our unique mandate.

As funders, we engage in our own strategies, struggle with our own decisions, look for tools to enhance the impact of our philanthropic dollars. Maybe not easy, exactly, but absorbing and demanding. Sufficiently so that we may lose sight that we are always, by definition, playing in a larger sphere. Our decisions don’t only decide what worthy group or organization or city gets funded, but also what doesn’t. And writ large, our decisions say something important about what our public policies should look like, and which sector should have which responsibilities.

Advocacy matters. Why? Because, while philanthropy does matter, a lot, it never has and never will have the resources to solve systemic problems alone. Indeed, there is no systemic challenge that does not require a public policy commitment. It is wrong to allow politicians to deflect responsibility to the voluntary sector to solve such problems, and it is equally wrong for our sector to choose to ignore our mandate to keep educating political forces of their responsibility to the citizenry.

As one who has been educating philanthropists and foundation folk for almost 2 decades, I am never surprised that those in our field have to learn and re-learn basics of the laws [they differ depending where in the world one lives], ethics, and best practices that make us thoughtful and responsible funders. That is why we teach what we do, and it helps guarantee that our field continues to develop standards of excellence, and behaviors built on humility and an understanding of our power imbalance.

But best practices are not the same as understanding the uniqueness of our potential in shaping a larger society based on values. For that, we need to understand our roles at a more basic and profound level. We matter because we are advocating by our decisions, whether we intend to or not. We owe it to ourselves, our field, and our communities to do so with greater intention.

Becoming a Philanthro-ethicist

September 15th, 2015

Richard Marker

Years ago, when I started teaching funders, grantmakers, philanthropists, and foundation professionals, grantmaking ethics was one of the core subjects. My goal was and continues to be to help funders navigate the line, often porous, between the law, ethics, and best practices. What I knew from experience both as an individual funder [relatively modest though that may be] and as the ceo of a major foundation, is that most of us in the field had had very little formal training in navigating this area. Along the way I saw that there are some willful violators to be sure, but more typically, funders really do mean well and violate ethical standards more out of naiveté or innocence.

The more I taught this area, the more evident that the issue of power underlies a good deal of this and thus the need for teaching greater “conscious use of self” in the interface between those who want money and those who have it or access to it. Not a big surprise to most of us, I am sure, but providing methodologies and practices for dealing with what, for many, is a daily challenging reality has proven helpful.

In recent years this has become an in-demand topic for me to present at conferences, in keynote presentations, and for invitational workshops. Moreover, foundations on whose boards I sit and others have sought my counsel. [I only wish that some of them had consulted before they had to solve a problem.] And while I am glad and flattered to do this, it has caught me a bit by surprise. Frankly, I had always felt that ethics, law, and best practices are such a basic core competence that anyone who learned about grantmaking would have already mastered it or at least been adequately sensitized. Apparently not, and thus this post which will provide bullet points of a limited sampling of what we explore in greater depth during seminars, classes, or presentations. It seems that I have become a philanthro-ethicist.

Ethics and the Law:

For the purposes of this post, I am restricting my comments to US Law. As one who has had a good deal of experience with philanthropists and foundations in many countries, I am well aware that the particularities of US philanthropy law are not widely shared. Nevertheless, some key elements of US law are suggestive of how to develop universally accepted best ethical practice. [Please note that there are variations in State laws as well; as they like to say in the small print disclaimers, nothing in this article should be perceived as explicit legal advice, only guidelines for thinking about how to set good policy and practice.]

In the US, private foundations are a unique hybrid. They have many of the legal rights and responsibilities of other not-for-profit entities, but they are subject to certain restrictions and privileges not applicable to public charities. In exchange for a degree of control over board, staff, investment, and grantee decisions not available to public charities, private foundations have more accountability on establishing salaries, more explicit and restrictive self-dealing and conflict of interest rules, complete transparency on where every grant dollar is given [not why, just where], and have an annual tax on earnings. Some may argue with some specifics of the rules, but they do remind funders that the name on the foundation door may be yours, but the money no longer is.

At the same time, US law permits at least one unique situation where ethics and the law diverge. Anyone who establishes rules for best practice would never allow a board member to have life-time board tenure and be paid for providing professional services to that organization at the same time, but the law allows lawyers and financial managers to do just that. I suspect that there were some very effective lobbyists involved in establishing these exemptions, but they are not good practice – for any foundation.

Conflict of interest:

There is a difference between self-dealing, a financial category unequivocally forbidden by the law, and conflict of interest which in most States is subject to the judgment of a board of directors. A few key points:

Every organization should mandate that every board and staff member file a “conflict of interest statement” at least annually detailing potential financial and governance issues where he or she may have competing interests. One hopes that this is a virtually universal practice by now. What many boards forget to do, though, is act on those statements. Merely having those statements on file does not advise either the board or the filer whether that reported COI represents a problematic or de-minimus conflict. There should be a record of a properly designated committee of the board [perhaps the executive committee] minuting its decisions. It avoids all sorts of potential problems down the line.

Many boards are at a loss about what is valid, fair, and ethical in the area of whether or not it is appropriate to sit on the board of a grantee organization. In my opinion, the simplest rule of thumb should be appearance: if your foundation makes competitive grants in a variety of locales, the foundation should err on the side of a more restrictive policy. If your foundation exclusively does place based funding of the same core local organizations every year, there is little likelihood of misinterpreting the dual roles and therefore I would endorse a more lenient policy. [Happy to talk directly to those of you with specific questions.]

Ethics of Funder Behavior: Transparency

Every foundation should make its guidelines and application public. It is perfectly legal and ethical for a foundation not to accept any unsolicited proposals. It is perfectly legal and ethical to have strict limits and guidelines on where and for what purposes grants will be given. It may be bad practice for this information to be hidden away, but it is unethical for these blanket statements to apply only to some potential beneficiaries. In other words, foundations can legitimately have multiple processes and even differing guidelines – but it should not be an inscrutable mystery to know what is what.

Timelines for decisions should also be transparent. Foundations and individual funders have no obligation whatsoever to make decisions within any particular timeline, but if a grant request is submitted and is being considered, the seeker should know when a decision will be rendered, and be informed forthwith.

The field has real internal disagreements about what information should be shared about why decisions have been made. As long as there are no discrimination laws as stake, there is no legal issue in this. Sometimes, as I have written in more depth in other settings, there are many internal reasons for a “no” that have nothing to do with a proposal’s merit. Other times, there is constructive feedback that can improve not only a future proposal but also the proposed program itself. Judgment will rule about how much information to share and in what form, but in any case, it is most appropriate to share information that will be of use to the organization. Therefore, ethics mandates that it is better to say nothing than to lead a potential grantee on about future opportunities, or to give misleading feedback about the proposal. [For those interested in this subject, in addition to my previous postings, please see the websites of NCRP, GEO, and the Foundation Center for more extended discussion.]

Ethics of Funder Behavior: Potential Grantees

Funders realize that they are in a power imbalance with those who want funds. It is hard not to. Whether one is the principal or a representative [e.g., foundation staff], being a walking dollar sign in every room is our norm. How one reacts, though, is where ethics enters the picture. Here are a few examples:

Asking for favors: Sad to say, some funders assume that a charitable gift is an open ended purchase of a personal benefit, such as seats or priority access. While the law, and best practices, limit or forbid such quid pro quo unless it is related to the gift itself, no one in our field is so blind or naïve to think that it doesn’t happen…which doesn’t make it right. Those who have foundations should be aware that there are different laws for foundations and individuals. Foundations have stricter legal parameters on this issue, but the ethics are the same. As a straightforward way to think about the ethics of one’s behavior: There is a difference between recognition connected to a contribution vs. asking for personal favors simply because you have been a funder.

Site Visits: A site visit can be one of the most effective tools of due diligence a funder can utilize. It affords a look at and feel for a potential grantee in a way that reading a document, a proposal, a 990, or other material cannot do. A well organized and planned site visit can be indispensible in helping to make a decision.

From an ethics perspective, that very last phrase is key – helping to make a decision. If there is no decision to be made, or a funder simply thinks it would be “interesting” to stop by a non-profit of his or her choosing, please think twice. [Of course, I am not talking about institutions that are open to the public.] Remember that a visit by a funder can be disruptive. Staff are told to clean their desks or dress a little more formally and program staff may be called away from their primary work. Sure, in a university or a large museum, there are enough development staff that the disruption will be minor, but in smaller and more direct service organizations there are genuine issues of confidentiality and limited personnel.

Beware of the implicit tease as well. Organizations looking for support will look for any indication of your interest. Even if you tell them you are only “looking”, from their perspective, once you see how great they are, can you not be interested in funding them? YOU have raised expectations. Don’t be surprised when the proposal arrives on your desk.

There are many more examples. The underlying ethical mandate is that a funder must have “conscious use of self”. It is funders’ [or perceived potential funders’] obligation to be aware of how they are acting and how that action may be perceived.

The Ethics of Grantmaking

We have previously discussed some of the procedural issues. These few bullet points address a much more elusive, and controversial matter, the level of influence and intervention in the relationship with a grantee.

Social Justice – Personnel Practices of the Grantee

I am well aware that not everyone agrees with the following position:

I believe that ethical grantmaking requires that funders review the personnel practices of grantees. Far too many non-profits balance their budgets on the backs of their staff. Remember, non-profit does not require, nor should it even imply, a vow of poverty. Underpaid, under-benefited, and under-recognized staff burn out and limit the long term achievement of any organization. If funders are concerned about the long term success and viability of their grantees, then ethics and social justice should require an examination of staff tenure, training, compensation, and benefits.

There is a good deal of press attention every year about the top salaries in the not-for-profit world. When salary surveys list the highest salaries, popular opinion gets outraged about the appearance of over-paying some senior executives in the sector. Required 990 tax returns ask about the highest salaries, and only about the highest salaries. Why don’t those same tax returns require listing the bottom 5 salaries? Why is there not the same righteous indignation in the press when full time employees are paid marginal salaries and a very limited benefit package?

Some funders reply that it isn’t their business; those are internal matters. My response: asking about these policies is not the same as mandating specific ones. Moreover, if funders ask only about balanced budgets and not about the human costs of balancing those budgets or what it would really cost to provide consistent high quality services, we funders are at fault when non-profits exhibit counterproductive personnel practices and resulting mediocrity in performance.

Influencing the Direction of Grantee Organizations

In recent years, the issue of funder intervention in the direction of their grantees has surfaced quite regularly, for both good reasons and bad. There is a sense in much of the philanthropy world that there are just too many non-profit organizations. I am sure that some of that is true, but I am unconvinced that it is as major a problem as some say. It does put more of an onus on us in the funder sphere to make more careful judgments and to determine what is duplication and what are appropriately different or parallel responses to different neighborhoods, stakeholder groups, etc.

One response among some funders has been to exercise some “influence” on their grantees to collaborate more and to consider mergers. Our record is mixed to say the least.

Collaborations are an interesting step in that they can test out new efficiencies, cultural alignment, synergies, and compatible expertise, and I am all in favor of funders funding experiments in functional collaborations among their grantees. Mergers, on the other hand, are existential. One or more of the organizations will cease to exist, at least in a recognizable form, after a merger. It is an ethical issue, with lots of grey around the edges, for a funder to be heavy handed in pushing mergers unless it is absolutely clear that one of the organizations will soon fold if some life saving measure isn’t taken. This is not to argue that such discussions are never appropriate, only to underscore their delicacy. They are never risk free.

Anther area where funders often make the case that they know better than their grantees is identifying changing demographics or latest best practices in a field of service. Here, too, our record is mixed. Even when a funder is objectively correct, the transformation of an existing organization to meet these new or emerging or perceived realities is not always easy. There may be years of genuine expertise at stake; there may be stakeholders who would be abandoned; there may be facilities with designated purposes that would have to be abandoned or repurposed. Here, too, this is not to suggest that there is never a time for funders to raise these issues, even forcefully at times, but that the ethics surrounding raising those issues mandates that funders must bear significant responsibility for holding organizations harmless should they be persuaded that the funder is correct – and, at least for the short term, even if they disagree.

My own hands as an executive of a foundation were not fully clean in this area. In retrospect, there were actions we took both single handedly and with partner funders which saved some organizations, helped others to prosper, and re-aligned even others. However, sad to say, there were failures as well, where it is clear that heavy-handedness by a group of funders was responsible for failures. It taught me a lot of humility, to say nothing of ethics.

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The subjects raised in this post are by no means exhaustive. They are suggestive of how important ethics must be in the work that we as funders do, in the way in which we act, and in the influence that accrues to us. It appears that I have become a philanthro-ethicist – a worthy place to be.

I invite readers to feel free to let me know of additions to this list you would like me to address publicly in the future or privately immediately.