Posts from the ‘Philanthropy Trends’ Category
September 25th, 2020
August 5th, 2020
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.
#385 – I’m Not Traveling; Why Should my Money? The Surprising COVID-19 and Racial Inequity Dilemmas for Funders
June 15th, 2020
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”.
May 20th, 2020
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
May 15th, 2020
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.
May 10th, 2020
This post is a continuation of a series of responses to COVID-19. It was first written mid-April, but wasn’t published until now. It continues some themes originally discussed in #365, published on 18 March, and #366, published on 22 March. Since I first wrote this, a number of colleagues have begun addressing philanthropy strategy from a variety of perspectives, some echoing what I wrote then and here, others who take quite alternative views. Hopefully, this will add to our field’s very robust discourse.
Before exploring this question further, let me associate myself with the broad range of foundations, philanthropy support organizations, and other funders who have committed ourselves to increasing payouts, smoothing processes, and being agile during this extraordinary time. It is the right thing to do at what is surely an unprecedented time – at least in scope. The pandemic has exposed the not so hidden but easily overlooked fragility of much of the volunteer sector, the deep-seated racial and class divides in American society, the price of government’s years of retreat from a commitment to the welfare and health of most Americans, and, en passant, the all too often inscrutable and byzantine ways in which our funding community works.
It has been right that we as a field have demonstrated an agility rarely seen before and played substantial roles in literally putting our money where our mouths are.
But that is not the same as throwing our strategies out the window. And it is here that I call for caution. A few key points:
1. History has taught us that we, as funders, need to keep some of our powder dry. After disasters, compassion giving is quite widespread. But disaster exhaustion follows close behind. It isn’t clear if COVID-19 will follow the pattern but there is certainly reason to feel it will. After all, people are stretched, foundations are reaching way beyond normal giving patterns, and the government is printing money. After this stage stabilizes, whatever that may mean, will funders feel that it is time to move on or catch up even as the long-term impact is still being felt?
2. Moreover, there is likely to be some sort of recession. Even if employment returns some of the millions to the workplace, most projections assume some permanent losses. And while the markets have shown more resilience than the general economy, a rapid upswing is unlikely and therefore there won’t be replacement funds for the beyond-typical spending of the moment.
3. No one can fully anticipate the full scope of residual or recovery needs. Will there be food shortages as some predict? Will there be a surge in needs for psychological care as some others predict? Will our education system discover that it is in disarray and needs sorely needed funds just to get back to its prior less-than-adequate place? Will the numbers of non-profit closures raise new and severe issues of basic services to the most at-risk communities? Will the forces of xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Sinophobia have become so emboldened that we have overt social disruptions? None of these scenarios is very farfetched, and each would require real attention from funders.
Therefore, it is imperative that funders, especially foundations, resist the urge to spend it all now. Even if this is the proverbial rainy day that we have been saving for, there will be clean up for a long while for which we need to be prepared.
Moreover, if we had done our strategy work well in the past, we should have strategies to guide us through these and any unplanned times. If we always did the same kind of funding to the same institutions, we wouldn’t need to devote too much time or energy or thought power to the “what-ifs” or to competing claims. [It is a legitimate if limiting funding approach.] For most of us, we need strategies because we must make choices among competing legitimate causes. And since one never knows when something unanticipated comes along, we need strategies that can inform our responses at those times as well. Therefore, every organizational strategy needs to leave room for flexibility of implementation. If a strategy doesn’t allow for an implementation that can respond to the unknowable, it is too stringent a strategy.
Now, there is a difference between pure compassion giving, i.e., simply responding to the emotion of the moment, and flexibility in one’s strategy which allows an adaptability consistent with established priorities, values, and an understanding of where one’s resources can be most effectively used. Agility is not the same as anarchy.
Foundations and independent funders have a unique and enviable combination of attributes that should inform an effective and appropriate strategy guiding our decisions: Because foundations and independent funders have no plebiscite, no election to prepare for, no funds to raise, we can exercise both the vantage of thoughtful perspective and the agility to apply them in careful and adaptive ways. No other institution can claim that level of autonomy and that combination.
Thus, I would argue that, even if a foundation chooses to spend more of its endowment, change its allocation process, and revise its own ground rules, or an independent funder chooses to alter our “normal” way of giving, that need not and should not mean that we must cast aside our carefully articulated and crafted strategy. This message has never been more important to underscore than now, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, when pressures are so great on all of us.
April 30th, 2020
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
April 24th, 2020
Over the years, there have been both great advantages and great disadvantages to being an independent voice in the philanthro-eco-system.
After the foundation of which I was CEO closed in 2002, I made the choice to play an independent role as an educator, advisor, speaker, writer, and thinker about philanthropy. Having been an employee – albeit at a fairly high level – for the entirety of my professional life until that point, I decided to see what it would be like to be my own boss and to take full responsibility for my own words, involvements, and my own professional destiny. [for those readers who want to discuss the risks/rewards of that choice as they may apply to you, please be in touch directly – we can set up a time to chat.]
On the whole, that choice was a good one. I discovered that there were real opportunities to say and do things on both a professional and volunteer leadership level that might have required approval – or disapproval – in prior contexts. There were invitations to speak and teach in many places around the world that may not have been possible with executive or organizational obligations. And, perhaps most telling, I discovered that people were suddenly hearing my “voice” that, in the past, seems to have been hidden beneath a subconscious political sensitivity to the institutions in whose employ I was – even if I was the CEO.
There are also some significant disadvantages, though. In much of the philanthropy world, the question is “whom do you represent” determines which boards you sit on, which committees you are invited to, which task forces include you. While I surely have sat on many boards, committees and task forces, there were many more on which I might have wished to be a part that were addressing matters close to my heart and my expertise. And while I am not complaining about the depth of our own pockets, they are not deep enough to warrant others automatically making space as an independent player.
In the current COVID 19 context, this reality means that there are many statements, conversations, webinars, and conceptual considerations to which I am an outsider. When I – or our Institute for Wise Philanthropy – is invited, we eagerly participate, or sign on, or endorse, but rarely are we at the drafting table. I wish it were otherwise, but it does provide an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to take a broader view of what is happening now, what probably will happen, and what must not be allowed to happen to our field, and our nation as a whole.
I don’t know any more than any reader does about the sane and reasonable timeline for our current quarantine. I do know that it has exposed and underscored deep and abiding issues for all of us, philanthropists and philanthropoids included.
It has underscored that the human need for connection encourages creative uses of existing technology in ways that will surely change the way we do workplace and the way we do family – even when our in-person lives return. It has underscored that we do have control over our climate if we behave in ways that reduce pollution and the waste of natural resources, that public behavior matters – and that public policy matters more. [While I am sure deniers will continue to deny, the overwhelming evidence of cleaner skies over cities around the world is only one proof-text among many.] It has proven that the absence of a reasonable and equitable national health system is a death sentence for too many, and an injustice for all. It has proven, as if such proof were still necessary, that underlying and systemic racism – and other forms of xenophobic hatred such as anti-Asian-bias, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia are too close to the surface and too present in attitude, behavior, and impact. And it has proven that American claim of equal access and equal rights are all too hollow in the face of overwhelming evidence of a permanent underclass. [I am sure others can add to this list.]
This moment in time has also shown the vulnerability of organizations and institutions in stark and ominous ways. A society that chooses to rely on the voluntary sector to provide for essential human services, to address food insecurity, to enable much of our education system, and to care for our infirm and elderly suddenly finds that a voluntary sector can only do so much to provide palliatives to a deeply fragile system.
Lesson #1 What Must Change: We must not return to a normal which maintains systemic injustice. There are structural inequities, there are conceptual injustices, and there are entrenched bigotries that are destructive and simply wrong. There may be room for discussion about how to redress these systemic matters, but not whether they must be redressed. Without doing so, I am afraid that our nation will implode from within.
It is true that our sector, i.e., the funder community, has responded with alacrity and impressively to our current disruptions. Many foundations have made new funds available, many have made – at least temporary – changes in the way we do business, many have recognized anew that our missions cannot be fulfilled without profound trust in the nonprofits that implement our funding, and many have joined together in unprecedented collaborations and joint efforts. The scope of what needs to be done to respond and rebuild is massive and far beyond the capacity of our sector, but it is certainly true that we can stand tall in our response.
A larger and more long-term question has to do with sustainability: of the nonprofit world, of our altered tactics, and of the world as a whole. No serious person imagines that we will return to an unchanged world – but that doesn’t mean that our practices will or should change. Or if they should, in which ways? And who should decide?
For example, I would hope that no funder ignores the evident and demonstrable class and race chasm in the USA. But even if one recognizes that consideration of “DEI” needs to inform our grantmaking, there are various credible ways to do so: advocating public policy change, supporting intermediary organizations, funding local direct service entities, etc. I personally endorse certain practices and associate myself with the joint statement of 700 US foundations about utilization of our funds at this extraordinary time. Yet I continue to feel that, in the rush to provide resources where they are desperately needed – a flexibility that is indeed a crucial value-added of our field, we don’t surrender our other value-added asset – the ability to have strategies that take a thoughtful long view independent of contemporaneous political pressures. After all, as we look back to lesson #1, it is certain that the systemic societal inequities will outlast the pandemic and will demand every bit as much of our attention and funding. To do our work well, we need to combine both of those values – flexibility and perspective. [I will be offering a recorded webinar on this subject to be available for public viewing on Monday, 27 April.]
Lesson #2 – What Shouldn’t Change: The philanthropy field must continue to play its crucial role as a funder and thought leader. There may be exigencies that require short term funding adjustments, but our strategies should reflect longer term endorsement of our distinctive role. Hopefully, all of us have a strategy that allow both.
If it is true that our strategies should not be cavalierly disregarded as events unfold, it is also clear that it is time to underscore many of the best practices that have developed in our field. For many of us, as my clients and students know, these practices are well established; for many others, the emergence of the work of CEP, GEO, NCRP, and TBP are welcome correctives to deeply entrenched and often out of date practices.
To take just a few examples:
a. There needs to be an open and honest relationship with grantees and potential grantees. . We want to know what a grantee really needs to be successful, what is in the way of that happening, and what measures will truly show those things. And only funders can make that a safe place to be. Many funders are clueless about how the power imbalance, even when unintended, distorts that openness and gets in the way of an honest dialogue.
b. There needs to be a simplifying of what we ask of applicants for our funds. In teaching this over the years, I have learned that most funders want to ask as much as possible but only use a small portion of that information to make a decision. Why impose that extra work on the applicants, and ourselves, if it doesn’t really inform our decision?
c. Most grantees would benefit from unrestricted grants and most projects need more than one year to implement. There are important exceptions to both, to be sure, but our norm should be that, if we trust a grantee sufficiently to invest our money, we should give them the greatest chance to utilize their expertise.
d. We need to assure that our grantmaking enhances the professionalization of any program or organization we fund and not inadvertently reinforce the shameful pattern of undercapitalizing the sector we presumably believe in.
e. There needs to be proportionality of what we ask and require of our grantees, reflecting the size of our grants, and the capacity of the grantee. It may seem equal to ask every grantee for a quarterly report, but not equitable if one of those grantees is a 3-person neighborhood-based startup and another a well-established research university.
Lesson #3 – What Should Change: Best practices in the funder world have made major progress toward more open, honest, streamlined, and constructive relationships between funders and grantees. This doesn’t render strategy irrelevant, only that this way of thinking and behaving is likely to achieve a funder’s desire strategy in a more effective and less burdensome manner.
As we are now thinking through what will emerge, it is crucial for our field to take the lessons of these weeks and apply them to what will become normal and normative. Our work won’t end when the doors are open again but will call for us to play even more crucial roles during the forthcoming weeks and months – to do what we can and should do best.
March 31st, 2020
Addendum: Not so surprisingly, just hours after this was first published, I began reading of webinars addressing the particular challenges facing arts and culture institutions. More to the point, I also saw certain politicians staking out the position that it is inappropriate for bail-out government funds to be available to this sub-sector. Hopefully this post will help articulate some of the dialectic regarding this realm.
In this post, I return to philanthropy-practitioner questions and practices – this time for those who fund in the Arts and Culture realm. As of this writing, I have not yet seen any larger discussion of this issue, although I anticipate that we will in the coming days and weeks. I welcome thoughts and reactions.
The question has been raised if it is legitimate or even ethical to continue funding in this area in the face of the overwhelming human urgency of COVID-19. COVID-19 is about life and death; arts and culture are about quality of life. What is a funder to think given that stark a comparison?
Similar questions have been raised in the past – during recessions, natural disasters, human caused disasters. “Compassion funding” – the very human and humane responses that we all feel at these times seems to weigh heavily toward an argument for a suspension of “quality of life” causes when so many are struggling with basic needs. Let’s get these people healthy or back on their feet and then we can get back to these “extras”.
That argument, though, is rebuttable. Even if one believes that the urgency of the moment outweighs the long term, it may be a short-sighted decision to discontinue all funding to this sub-sector. At the end of this thing, whenever it will be, we will need to re-engage and rebuild those organizations that add to the nature of what it means to be human, or perhaps better said: art and culture are not “additions” but essential.. Are we better off with shuttered centers and bankrupt organizations that would need to be created anew?
If history is any indication, the answer is that we should do what we can to sustain this sector, in some way, since gearing back up is much easier than starting back up.
The next question is: which ones? Is it more important to guarantee that the largest, wealthiest, most prestigious ones are kept whole since they serve the largest portion of the population on a regular basis? Or conversely, can we assume that those are also the organizations that do and will receive money from the deepest pocketed donors, governments, and endowments, so we should focus on the smaller entities that perennially exist on a more fragile financial base?
Part of the answer has to do with one’s funding style and priorities. For a “place-based” funder – that is, a funder whose giving priorities are primarily connected to a particular city or region, sustaining local institutions with which they have had meaningful relationships over time may be the most appropriate and compelling approach. One’s funding at this time may not be sufficient to keep the organization whole, but it may be enough to keep it alive. That support should involve cash, of course, but it may also include contracting for expertise in helping all regional nonprofits during times of enforced transition. A singe consultant may well serve to advise an entire cadre of at-risk institutions.
We know from past crises that there will be both consolidations and fall out. And there will be time for that down the road. But forcing those kinds of hard and strategic choices in a time of crisis is exactly the wrong time to force existential decisions. That is especially true in this particular time of COVID-19 when no one can know what kinds of earned revenue will be possible or when physical spaces will be open again. And no one can fully know what kind of economic downturn has begun.
The issue is more complex for the larger legacy institutions. Most of us were aghast to read that the Washington based NSO laid off its entire orchestra the same day it received a guarantee of an infusion from bailout funds. It creates a conceptual dilemma for funders: If we believe that those legacy institutions are national treasures that deserve taxpayer support, then we might argue that private philanthropy should be reserved for those institutions that don’t receive that support. But here, even with taxpayer funding, the leadership acted in what appear to be self-destructive ways, or at least, with severe myopia. Whatever the correct longer-term answer, it is certainly true that modest pocketed funders will not be able to make up the difference for those large legacy institutions. Better to leave their philanthropy to places where their funding will make a/the difference.
It has become fairly much the norm in the last two weeks for funders to agree to remove restrictions from existing funding, simplify their application and decision processes, speed up their payment of grants, and dig deeper into reserves. All of this applies to arts and culture funding as well – but with one additional caveat: funding should be built around the commitment by the recipient boards to keep their organizations alive – even if not whole -until, as we suggest above, the time is right to take the hard look at what we need to do to keep a robust arts and culture community functioning well into the future.
There will be very, very hard decisions ahead about which groups and institutions survive, consolidate, merge, or, sadly, close. But the option should never be to surrender our commitment to the quality of human experience as provided by the “arts and culture” sector. History has taught us no less.