There’s a Place for Us

February 25th, 2016

In a prior post, I shared information about 2015 grants we made in the Ford Foundation’s rebooted Philanthropy portfolio. One of the categories was “Engaging More Donors for Social Justice.” What do we mean by that?

In this post, I’ll focus on what kinds of donors we have in mind, and how we’ll approach learning more about them.

We know that generosity is relational, social, and holistic – we don’t compartmentalize the way we help others, we just help: in our families, with our friends, in our neighborhoods. And yet philanthropy is seen as so formalized: foundations, donor-advised funds, giving circles – it seems like someone has to write by-laws and take minutes just to express a simple act of generosity through money in philanthropy-land.

It’s time to break down those walls. We need to reclaim generosity from the philanthropoids. I write this as a card-carrying philanthropoid. (No, really: my business card says: “Program Officer, Philanthropy”.) And part of that reclaiming is understanding how people give, and how they are helped to give. There are bookshelves of treatises on this. I think about it like this:

Who Gives What They Give Who Helps Them Give
Everyday Givers $50 at a time Crowdfunding platformsDirect mail from nonprofits Community foundations
Professionals $500 Giving circles
High-Net-Worth Donors $5,000 Social Venture PartnersBoards of larger nonprofitsCommercial donor-advised funds (Fidelity)
Ultra-High-Net-Worth Donors $50,000 Wealth managers and private banksFamily officesPrivate philanthropy advisors

Of course, these categories aren’t hard and fast. In particular, an individual may move up and down these categories, and just because you have a lot of money doesn’t mean you give a lot (and vice versa). One of my favorite words is “heuristic” – it means a device or tool that helps you organize your thoughts and solve problems. The above is a heuristic, an approximation of reality that hopefully captures some basic truths.

And one of those may be this: While some of the platforms mentioned above (particularly community foundations) serve multiple types of donors, for the most part, where you can give depends on how much you have to give.

So if we want to learn how to get more donors engaged in social justice, we need to understand these different levels of giver, understand the places where they give, and figure out what works for engaging what kinds of donors with social justice.

Why does this matter? Because organizations working on the front lines to disrupt the drivers of inequality are largely starved for resources.

Over the course of this year, we will explore these issues through blogging and convening.

  • On Everyday Givers: We’ll look at whether crowdfunding platforms are good for social-justice organizations; and what crowd-resourcing efforts like ioby can teach us about donor engagement and grassroots leadership.
  • On Professionals: We’ll look at innovative efforts to engage professional donors of color, and learn from what’s come previously.
  • On High-Net-Worth Donors: We’ll look at how the growth of commercial donor-advised funds has affected the type of donor education available and what it’s taught us about donor motivations; and how the Social Venture Partners model has sought to engage this audience.
  • On Ultra-High-Net-Worth Donors: We’ll look at how wealth managers and private banks view their work with donors; and at how donor networks like Solidaire Network and Resource Generation connect people with wealth and class privilege with community organizing and social movements.

By the end of these activities, we’ll hope to have learned more about what types of donors are amenable to social justice, and what techniques work and don’t to help them get there.

As a donor yourself, how do you engage, and where? What platforms do you use to give, and who helps you do so?


Open Sesame

February 5th, 2016

One of my favorite things to have discovered since joining the Ford Foundation last April to reboot its Philanthropy portfolio is the Fund for Shared Insight. This is a funding collaborative that seeks to advance the research and practice of feedback loops in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, and to advance foundation openness. Basically, we think it’s really important to listen directly to the people we’re trying to help, AND to USE that feedback to improve practice. That last part is critical – lots of folks gather feedback, but precious few are able to use it, systematically and consistently.

We’re in the midst of our second year with the Fund for Shared Insight, and we’re getting ready to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for projects that promote greater foundation openness. To walk our own talk, we want to be open about how we’re developing the concepts behind the RFP. We had the great good fortune to meet with a number of excellent organizations working on this issue, and have had a number of rich conversations among collaborative members, which have led us to some thinking that I’m honored to have been asked to share below.

We’re looking for feedback on concepts and language here. Are the ideas clear, does the language communicate effectively, can you picture what a funded project would look like? Do the concepts make sense, do they describe real foundation behavior, are they something worth working on?

You’ll notice that we include a framework for thinking about foundation openness, in a three-column table. We’ve had LOTS of discussion about this. We’ve found that it’s helped advance our thinking, and has stimulated good conversation, but it’s far from definitive. The thing about frameworks is, they’re necessarily distortions of reality. And what we’re clear on is that reality is not as simple as the three-part model we lay out below.

For one thing, different foundations will enter the continuum at different points. Some may start out with what we’re calling “fundamental” openness, and move to what we’re calling “courageous” openness. Others may start out as what we’re calling “closed” foundations, and stay there for perfectly valid reasons (a donor who requires anonymity, for example). For another thing, foundations, particularly larger ones, are complex systems. Some programs within the same foundation may embrace openness to a greater degree than others. How do we judge that foundation’s overall place on the continuum? And so on.

The essential point is, there’s a difference between one-way openness, in which a foundation makes its information available to the outside world, and two-way openness, in which it engages in dialogue with the outside world and is willing to make changes as a result. For some foundations, it’s a huge achievement even to get to one-way openness; as we point out below, nearly a third of foundations with assets over $100 million (that is, pretty big ones) don’t even have a website. For other foundations, sharing by default has become the norm, and they’re pushing themselves to address the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits, or talking candidly about failure. We want to recognize these different forms of openness and encourage conversation and practice that moves foundations toward two-way openness where that makes sense.

All right. That’s a lot of preamble, but we want to be candid about where we are. Since we believe that feedback thoughtfully gathered and applied improves performance, we want to improve our upcoming RFP by getting your thoughts about the language and framework below, which we’ll discuss and decide upon at our upcoming March meeting. Feel free to use the comments section below, or email your thoughts to

Thanks very much for believing in the power of openness, and for sharing your own insight with us.


Increasing Foundation Openness

Draft Concept Paper to Inform a Request for Proposal


Why Increase Foundation Openness?

There are many potential motivations for foundations to be more open. The motivation driving the Fund for Shared Insight’s interest in increasing foundation openness is effectiveness. We hypothesize that in today’s complex, connected world, greater openness among foundations, the nonprofits that they support, and the people that both nonprofits and foundations want to help, is a prerequisite to effectiveness. We think that greater openness enables philanthropy to:

  • Attract and empower good ideas from multiple sources;
  • Facilitate faster testing and learning (including identification and sharing of what works and what doesn’t);
  • Improve nonprofit relationships with funders and among each other;
  • Strengthen collaboration and reduce duplication of effort;
  • Increase public trust; and
  • Build communities of shared

Toward this end, we are planning to release an open request for proposal (RFP) in the spring of 2016 to fund efforts to build upon existing or seed new activities to increase foundation openness in more staffed foundations in the United States. In 2016-17, we expect to provide up to $2 million in grants to promote foundation openness, although all funds may not be expended under the RFP. The grants will be a minimum of $100,000, over either one or two years, to support efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness.

We are sharing this draft concept paper in the hope that others can provide us with feedback about what is useful and not as helpful about the framework and perhaps suggest a better set of definitions or frameworks for increasing foundation openness.


Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”) is a collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. Shared Insight emerged from our belief that foundations will be more effective and make an even bigger difference in the world if we are more open – if we share what we are learning and are open to what others want to share with us, including grantees and the people we seek to help.

Shared Insight aims to do this by providing grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.

Fund for Shared Insight is a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Initial funders include the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The JPB Foundation, Liquidnet, the Rita Allen Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and we welcome other funders to join this effort, which will unfold over several years.

How Do We Define “Foundation Openness”?

We have frankly struggled with how to explain what we mean by “foundation openness.” At this time, our best attempt at defining foundation openness is to characterize two different broad categories as follows:

·        Fundamental Openness. This set of practices involves making information about the foundation’s work publicly available. Often known as “transparency,” it includes practices such as having a web site, posting names of board members and staff, and making public information about grantmaking strategies and grants made. In some cases, fundamental openness may be necessary for pursuing courageous openness.

·        Courageous Openness.[1] This set of practices goes beyond transparency. It entails a deeper transformation of organizational culture to make sharing the default; to be open about failure, evaluation and learning; and to allow external stakeholders to engage meaningfully with the development of strategy, goals, and vision. While fundamental openness is often about the one-way transmission of information, courageous openness is primarily about two-way interaction between foundations and different key stakeholders.

In presenting these two categories, we acknowledge it is too simplistic to define foundation openness as a dichotomy of fundamental vs. courageous openness. We have thought about describing it as a linear process or points along a continuum, however, in reality we know foundation openness is more complex than that. For example, a foundation might be good at listening to stakeholders and acting on what it hears, but not in sharing about its failures. Also, foundations are not typically monoliths. A single foundation may have multiple program areas whereby some programs (because of advocacy reasons, perceived risks to grantees, opposition, etc.) are more or less courageously open than others.

In 2014, through an open RFP process, Fund for Shared Insight supported five organizations for activities designed to support increasing foundation openness. Their efforts included promoting greater adoption of Creative Commons licensing by foundations; encouraging more public dissemination of foundation reports through a centralized hub; producing videos featuring foundation staff sharing about their lessons learned; modeling open philanthropic practices; and investigating foundation CEO views on foundation transparency. We continue to learn from these grants and engage in focused discussion with these grantees and others to help us further define what we mean by “openness”, explain why it is important to philanthropy, and explore how we might encourage more openness among foundations, the nonprofit organizations that they fund, and the people that we all ultimately seek to help.

Through this process Shared Insight honed its views of the differences between closed organizations, organizations embracing fundamental openness, and organizations embracing courageous openness. We recognize that organizations engage in foundation openness at multiple entry points and that the process of becoming more open as a foundation is not as linear as our language might suggest but we offer the figure below as one possibly helpful way of framing the issue[2]:

Foundation Openness Draft Framework[3]


  Closed Organization Fundamental Openness Courageous Openness
Type No public communication (black box) Foundation communicates out (microphone) Two-way open dialogue (walkie-talkie)
Potential Benefit  Privacy Transparency, more complete information for grantees and other potential collaborators Foundation decision-making is better informed, leading to better outcomes
Perceived Risk Could lead to public misunderstanding & mistrust Could lead to being inundated with requests, opening foundation to criticism Could force foundations to deal with “hard truths;” could add to cost of doing business; could potentially lead to damaging grantee reputations
Power Dynamics Reinforces status quo Questions status quo Changes status quo
Change Required None Processes Practices & culture
Outputs None Information & solo insight Shared Insight
Web Analog Pre-Web Web 1.0 (Broadcast) Web 2.0 (Social Network)

Currently, some foundations in the U.S. are functioning as closed organizations. For example, according to the Foundation Center, fully 30% of foundations with more than $100 million in assets do not have a website.[4] But a large and growing group of foundations is embracing fundamental openness, and a few are reaching for courageous openness.

Fund for Shared Insight aspires to spark movement of a large number of foundations along the openness continuum, with more foundations embracing fundamental openness and courageous openness over time. The foundations supporting Shared Insight realize that we ourselves are all on various points along the openness continuum (or spiral). We hope to learn and experiment along with many others over the next two years. We are sharing this concept paper with a desire to be humble, collaborative, and focused on learning, and to inform our development of an open RFP in this area in the Spring of 2016.


[1] We would like to acknowledge our colleagues at Grantmakers for Effective Philanthropy (GEO) for introducing us to the phrase “courageous openness” which has helped clarify our understanding of various approaches to foundation openness.

[2] In our funder collaborative meetings, we have at times envisioned depicting foundation openness as a spiral or ongoing feedback loop with multiple entry points where foundations can work towards both fundamental and courageous openness.

[3] We acknowledge this framework does not address the role of anonymous foundation giving.

[4] We plan on including data from the CEP study on foundation transparency here as additional background and context once the data are no longer embargoed on February 23rd. 


November 18th, 2015

This is the fun part. Here are the initial grants we’ve made in Ford’s rebooted Philanthropy portfolio. We have a primary goal of promoting greater uptake of open and inclusive practices in US foundations, and a secondary goal of mobilizing more philanthropic support for social justice from individuals and institutions. In addition, we’re especially interested in promoting greater alignment within the philanthropic infrastructure, and so have made a couple of meaningful grants for that.

Very excited to talk about the great work these organizations are doing! And also to share information about some groups that weren’t quite on strategy for us but are doing important work that’s worth taking notice of. I’m proud to say that 77% of the grant dollars referenced here are unrestricted support.

Please click the headings below to read more about the individual organizations, with links to their websites, which I encourage you to check out.

Uptake of Open and Inclusive Practices in U.S. Foundations

We’re particularly excited about a cluster of efforts that are seeking to go within the black box of how foundations operate internally, so that we might get better at promoting greater openness and inclusion.

The throughline of these grants is that different groups are working on different levers to move foundations toward greater openness and inclusion. Some are focusing on the board, some on the CEO, some on the program officer, and some on the organizational structure or design. We look forward to fostering a conversation that brings together these different efforts and helps define the state of the field and where we go next.

Engaging More Donors for Social Justice

Most of our work in this area will be knowledge curation about what types of individual and institutional donors are most receptive to social justice, and what kinds of approaches do and do not work to reach them. We’ll make a limited number of grants to learn more about these topics.

Alignment in the Philanthropy Infrastructure

Other Noteworthy Efforts

I’ll have more to say in future posts about the strategy behind these grants, and next steps for the program, but for now, please enjoy the awesomeness that is these groups and their great work.

Read the rest of this entry »

All of the Feels (#FailEpic, part 3)

November 5th, 2015

Why is it so hard to foundations to talk about failure? In the last two posts, and the lively comments therein, we’ve seen a few reasons: lack of incentives, presence of disincentives, lack of context, lack of clarity about when failure has actually happened and who owns it.

There’s a dimension of these reasons on which I want to dig in further, because it’s one we’re not that well set up to deal with in the sector. This became clear to me when I sat in on a local convening of funders talking about how to identify high-impact opportunities. (Another trusted network.) The concept of risk came up, and risk aversion. We dug in on, “risk of what?” What are we afraid will happen? Here are some of the things that came up:

  • Embarrassment: you got something wrong, you made a mistake, you messed up, you did damage
  • Ignorance: looking like you don’t know everything, or enough, about a particular topic or idea or community
  • Damage to relationships: you’ve wasted someone’s time, you’ve let down your colleagues, you’ve made others question your judgment.

These are not the concerns of technocrats! This is emotional stuff, what Jan Jaffe is calling philanthropy’s “second discipline,” the relational and interpersonal skills program officers need to do the work well.

I daresay we are spectacularly ill-prepared in the social sector to talk about and deal with this stuff in any kind of systematic way. There are any number of great program officers who move through these issues sensitively, effectively, and with nuance. CEP highlighted several a few years back. But that’s, as CEP put it, “luck of the draw,” not something that we hire or train for systematically.

I’m reminded of my former colleague Anne Sherman, who talked about change management as an inherently emotional process. It’s the CEO’s job, Anne wrote, “to help staff and board cope with the emotional aspects of change—the painful aspects of the process that involve letting go of something in order to make room for something new.”

What a discussion of risk helps us see is that it’s not just at times of change that emotional dynamics need to be managed; it’s in how we deal with uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. So, what might this look like?

  • Part of it is self-management, and self-awareness. GrantCraft has a great guide to leveraging your whole self in your grantmaking role. Hiring for that kind of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is part of equipping foundation staff to deal with risk, and failure.
  • But it’s also about the social dynamics within the organization. Individual self-awareness isn’t enough; the practices of how people generate ideas, talk about them, and decide whether or not to implement them deserves attention. Who gets to talk during your staff meetings? (How often do you have staff meetings in the first place?) Is there a de facto division between program staff and other staff? Are program staff the only ones looked to for program-related ideas, or suggestions about what’s working or what could work better?
  • One element of social dynamics that often doesn’t get discussed in philanthropy, because we’re oh-so-polite, is the role of education and social class. Look around at your next staff meeting. Are only the people with graduate degrees talking? Do we overly value the perspectives of those who’ve gone through the slog of post-secondary education? And do the cultures of those institutions sharpen our vulnerability to failure, because we’re so used to high achievement and reward?
  • Another element of social dynamics that does get discussed, all too often in a superficial way, is diversity, equity, and inclusion. As you’ll hear me say if you spend more than ten minutes with me, diversity is a checklist exercise about who’s at the table; inclusion is about how we treat each other at the table and who gets heard; and equity is about what results from our deliberations at the table. It’s time to get beyond diversity and engage inclusion and equity. And to do so in a way that allows for our vulnerable, fragile, human selves to work through unfamiliarity and difference toward understanding and comity. As the new Canadian premier said yesterday while announcing his new cabinet, when asked why it was 50% women: “because it’s 2015.”

All of this connects back to the relationship between internal openness and external openness. Do you need to be more internally open to enable you to be more externally open? Or you can be a structured, hierarchical, fear-driven place that delivers great customer service? This is an empirical question, but a moment’s reflection about how the corporate sector operates suggests that the two aren’t necessarily related. You can have places that are run very traditionally but are great at listening to customers. But how sustainable is this approach? And is greater harmony between the internal and the external conducive to better relationships? Again, this is an empirical matter.

But I would suggest, based on a discussion with some colleagues brought together by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO – another trusted network), that there are multiple points of entry for engaging with openness. These can include strategy, branding, technology, processes, leadership succession, and even physical space. This morning, I visited the Foundation Center’s beautiful new location in the financial district of Manhattan, which has open-plan architecture – no one has offices. It seems like it sends an important signal to have Brad Smith, the president, sitting at a workstation among everyone else. Making a change to the space is fostering a discussion about how the organizational culture shifts to incorporate open-plan. For us at Ford, a major strategy shift is spurring us to think about organizational culture. For others, it’s about branding, or technology.

These multiple paths are a gift: they give us different ways to engage with internal openness, including a willingness to talk about failure. And I think that means that we don’t have to wait to feel like we’re entirely internally open before being willing to be externally open. Rather, we can identify what point of entry to greater openness is most available, whether internal or external, and follow the thread that it provides us. What lies ahead is sure to be a labyrinth, but in the tale of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, in the end, the heroes emerge from the maze. That’s a feeling worth working towards.


#FailEpic, continued

August 7th, 2015

I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.

I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.

  • Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
  • Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
  • Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?

The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.

  • Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?

Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?


July 24th, 2015

At three recent philanthropy gatherings*, I’ve heard open discussions of failure in grantmaking strategy and execution. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but I’m heartened by this mini-trend.

Why is it still so hard to talk about failure in philanthropy?

  • There’s no incentive. Under what circumstances is one encouraged to fail? Working out, playing sports, rehearsing for a performance – these are all activities where you’re meant to try something new, see how it goes, fix what didn’t work, and try again. You get immediate signals that tell you what’s not working, and often someone is there to tell you what to do instead, or how to do better. What’s crucial in those cases is that you’re not alone, and that there is someone in the role of spotter – observing your performance with a frame of reference of how to do it better, giving you timely feedback on how to improve. And you can see the results of your improved performance. Signals about performance in philanthropy travel much more slowly, if at all, and the roles are not nearly as clear. As discussed in a prior post, most foundations are minimally staffed, so there’s not a lot of space for an HR function. And most program staff are recruited for their content expertise, not because they’re good managers. So you can’t count on there being a spotter for you within your foundation. Don’t get me wrong, people within the foundation do pay attention to what you’re doing, and you are called to account if you don’t follow the rules. But those rules aren’t necessarily set up to support performance or performance improvement. Which brings up another point…
  • There are disincentives, real and imagined. Boards are often risk-averse. (But what exactly are they worried about?) Senior leadership may be launching a new initiative that they’ve had to persuade the board or outside stakeholders is worth taking on, and they don’t want to give ammunition to their critics. (But is anyone actually paying attention?) There are internal cultures of perfectionism. (But what are the actual consequences of imperfection?) The audience with whom you’re sharing may not understand what it takes to make a good grant, and will take your failure out of context. (But what’s so bad about having to explain yourself?)
  • There’s not enough context. Foundations are not good about telling the story of their work. On the one hand, you don’t want to brag, when it’s really the nonprofits to whom you provide support that are doing the hard work. On the other hand, if no one ever has any understanding of where you’re coming from, and why you operate the way you do, then it becomes especially hard to talk about when things don’t go right. If the first time people are hearing about you is when something goes wrong, you’re going to get an unsympathetic reading, and you’ll be on the defensive from the get-go.
  • It’s not easy for anyone. Let’s not underestimate the fragility of the human ego: it stings when something doesn’t work out, especially when, like a lot of foundation folks I’ve met (and am), you’re a high achiever with a passion for this work who feels lucky and privileged to play this kind of role.
  • The stakes are comparatively high. I owe this insight to Phil Buchanan from CEP: failure in philanthropy is not the same as failure in a commercial enterprise, the kind where “fail fast” is a popular mantra. If the newest tech product launch fails, the consequences are not the same as if a social-impact bond working on recidivism among juvenile offenders fails. There’s actually an interesting discussion to be had about the loss of jobs if a business effort fails vs. the failure to receive services if a nonprofit effort fails (how well do we know the service works, etc.), but some other time.

What other reasons are there for why it’s hard to talk about failure in philanthropy? How can we overcome them?

*I note that all three discussions happened in grantmaker-only spaces. There’s value in a trusted network of peers, as my colleague Brian Walsh calls it, that provides a space in which to be more open. I look forward to the day when such conversations can happen in broader public networks.

What would it take to promote a more open discussion of failure in philanthropy? What benefits would that provide?


Don’t Forget the Ark

July 9th, 2015

Last week, I wrote about why there is a structural need for philanthropy infrastructure organizations: because the staff of grantmaking organizations are distributed across many individual organizations, and don’t have a consistent pipeline or curriculum to learn their craft.

A corollary of this structural condition is that it is very difficult to maintain institutional memory. The consequences of this were brought home for me with particular force today as I participated in a quarterly Ford Foundation staff tour of the Rockefeller Archive Center. This remarkable institution, nestled on bucolic hillsides in Hudson County, NY, houses the archives of the Ford, Rockefeller, Russell Sage, William T. Grant, and several other foundations that were established in the early part of the 20th century. They have 115 million pages of material. One hundred and fifteen MILLION pages. The mind reels.

I’m only a little embarrassed to say that I had a shiver of literal awe when we came to the room where these file cabinets are housed:

Ford Foundation grant files, Rockefeller Archive Center

These are the reels of microfilm that contain the grant files of the Ford Foundation from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. The data that are in here! The knowledge! The lessons learned! What a treasure.

And yet, like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I had a vision of this treasure lost to time. That’s how we’re treating the history of philanthropy. We embark on new strategies without learning what’s been done before. That’s why as Ford is operationalizing our new strategy, we’re including deep dives into our past practice.

So let me make an invitation, particularly to new donors and those setting up foundations. Check out the website of the Rockefeller Archive Center.  Better yet, try using the search function with terms that are relevant to your work. The lovely people at the Center can help you get a hold of relevant materials that you pull up. They can even PDF things for you if you’re not able to come visit. As I learned from a stimulating afternoon of conversation, they’re also extremely informed about the contents of the archive and the history of philanthropy. They can cite, chapter and verse, reports that are relevant to your topic, or name the years in which one of the foundations in the collection went through a major strategy refresh. You’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of how far we’ve and how far we have to go – and with lots of useful reading!

And then, if there are topics around which you think it would be useful to convene scholars of philanthropy who are using the archive, let me know. I’d love to work with you and the folks at the Center to see what we might make happen.

Happy hunting in the archives!

Eternal Recurrence

July 2nd, 2015

Why does organized philanthropy need infrastructure organizations?

For me, the simplest explanation is structural. There are upwards of 100,000 foundations in the U.S. The vast majority of these are small and unstaffed. One of the largest infrastructure organizations by membership is Exponent Philanthropy, what used to be called the Association of Small Foundations. I only bring up their former name to indicate their membership base – it has a median staff size of two. That’s likely an executive director and an admin person.

So what you have are a relatively small cluster of foundations with staffs, and then a somewhat larger cluster of foundations with minimal staffs, and then a long tail of foundations with no staffs at all.

Focusing on the first two clusters, I’m going to hazard an educated guess that there are between 12,000 and 15,000 foundation staff in the U.S. I looked into this trying to find a more solid number, and the best estimate I could track down is in the Council on Foundations’ Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report. The 2014 version ($) includes data on 9,476 full-time foundation employees from 964 foundations whose annual giving totaled $13 billion in 2013. This amount represents roughly a quarter of all foundation giving that year, so I assume that these foundations represent a significant part of the first cluster and a decent-sized part of the second cluster. The median staff size of the sample is 5 full-time staff. If Exponent’s membership of around 2,200, which has a median staff size of 2, represents a good chunk of the second cluster, then I think it’s fair to say that somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 foundation staff is the right number. The number of program staff, folks responsible for doing the bulk of grantmaking, is much smaller. In the CoF sample, there were 1,069 reported full-time program officers within the sample of 964 foundations (not all of whom reported having program officers or specified the number of them – and program officers aren’t the only position that make grants). So the effective number of grantmakers is almost surely less than 10,000.

Where do those people learn how to do their jobs? Philanthropy is not a profession like the law or medicine – there’s not a standard curriculum, specialized schools (apart from a small handful at this point, but they’re not designed to function like a law school does), certification processes, or industry standards (with specialized exceptions like the National Standards for Community Foundations). We have one peer-reviewed journal (The Foundation Review, which, full disclosure, I had a piece published in it earlier this year), and several professional conferences.

What we don’t have is a standard path for entering the field, or a standard procedure by which to learn how to be good at it. There are resources like Essential Skills & Strategies for New Grantmakers (in which I’ve taught in the past) and the Grantmaking School, but these are voluntary and not at scale. I’m not opining what we should or should not have at this point, just observing the structure of our field.

So, take these two realities – a not-that-large population of grantmakers spread across many different institutions without a lot of concentration in any one institution (apart from a relatively small set of exceptions); and a field that is not set up as a profession with a standardized mode of learning – and what do you get? A field of people hungry for connection who can’t get what they need inside their own institutions. That’s why there are infrastructure organizations – because where else are grantmakers going to learn from their peers, identify and learn to apply best practices, get advice and mentorship, find a career path, hone their leadership skills, collaborate for greater impact, get in touch with trends and issues, and cultivate a collective voice on issues of the day? Our field is not set up to afford most grantmakers the resources to do that within their own organizations. So they have to look outside, and that’s where infrastructure groups come in.

There’s a whole separate set of questions about the ecosystem of infrastructure organizations – number, function, balance, health, etc. But to engage that conversation, I think it’s useful to start with an understanding of why there’s a need for them in the first place. And from what I can tell, that need is, at a minimum, structural.

What do you think? I’m essentially saying that there will always need to be infrastructure organizations as long as the field is structured this way, but is that a fair assumption? Are there other ways to provide the connection, learning, and networks that infrastructure groups offer? Do we need to think differently about the highly decentralized nature of foundations? Do we need to think differently about establishing a more structured pipeline? What am I not taking into account?

Thanks, and Happy July 4th!

Time for a Reboot

June 25th, 2015

It’s a tremendous honor to have joined the Ford Foundation in April as the Program Officer for Philanthropy. I’ve long been an admirer of the foundation’s reach and approach, and when I first moved to New York, I lived a block from its headquarters – so this building has long loomed large for me, both figuratively and literally.

And it’s a very exciting time to be here, as so many things are changing. Our fearless president Darren Walker recently announced how our focus is shifting to disrupting the drivers of inequality, and that we’ll be doubling our commitment to unrestricted support. These are big shifts for a nearly 80-year-old organization, and it feels like the place will look very different by this time next year. These types of major change initiatives are never easy, and the hardest part lies ahead, when we translate the new strategies into a new way of operating. But this place is full of brilliant, dedicated people who are fun to work with, and I’m hopeful.

My job is to “program” the Philanthropy portfolio, a term we use around here that I hadn’t heard before. It means articulating a point of view and developing a strategy in collaboration with my boss Hilary Pennington, the VP for Education, Creativity, and Free Expression, and then deciding what grants to make, and what beyond-the-grant activities to carry out – convening, research, advocacy, public education, technical assistance, etc. We’re tremendously lucky here at Ford to be able to play an active role in the fields we support. But that also means a lot of responsibility! In talks at the JAG Unity Summit and the Minnesota Council on Foundations last year, I described a responsible funder role as meaning that you’re sensible, reliable, and accountable. Time to walk the talk.

The tagline I inherited, based on strategy work done before I arrived, is “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions.” Having written my fair share of such taglines from my days as a strategy consultant, I can say this is quite a good one – it gives both direction and latitude. So my immediate task is to flesh out that tagline into a strategy, start making grants, and doing beyond-the-grant work.

The exciting part of this job is that the field of philanthropy is evolving VERY quickly, so there are a lot of opportunities to support really interesting stuff. The daunting part is that the field of philanthropy is evolving very quickly, so there are a LOT of opportunities to support really interesting stuff – and we’ll have to make choices. As my friend and former TCC Group colleague Jared Raynor likes to say, “it’s not a strategic decision if you don’t leave a good option on the table.”

I’m reading the book “Creativity, Inc.,” by the head of Pixar Animation, Ed Catmull. It’s his description of the process by which Pixar has sought to create a sustainable culture of creativity and excellence. Given that their latest movie, “Inside Out,” just had the biggest opening ever for an original property, I’d say they’re making a pretty good go of it, especially after a rough few years (“Cars 2,” anyone?). One of Catmull’s mantras within Pixar is, “all our movies suck at first.” They have a process by which those efforts, which are driven by their creators rather than sourced externally, are continually made better through structured, focused, regular feedback.

That sounds like fun. So, let’s try it. I’m going to repurpose this blog, which for the past five years I used as a personal opinion platform about the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, to be a scratch pad and platform for feedback on my emerging thinking about Ford’s Philanthropy program. I encourage you to ask questions, make comments, interrogate my assumptions, offer alternatives, or even just say, “yeah, okay, that wouldn’t be entirely un-useful to the field.” Together, we can go, as Catmull puts it, “from suck to not-suck.”

In the two and a half months since I started this position, I’ve had 105 meetings, 71 of them external to the foundation; attended more than a dozen convenings, conferences, workshops, or webinars; done three speaking engagements; been featured in an article ($) about careers in philanthropy; and had a post published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog about partnerships between individual and institutional donors. I’m grateful to everyone involved in those conversations, which have been enormously helpful as I’ve identified some initial directions to explore. In future posts, I’ll share some of the ideas that have been emerging and ask for your feedback. The topics may include:

  • Broadening the scope of donors interested in social justice
  • The expressive dimensions of philanthropy, or, the ways people use money to build the world they want to see
  • What “integrative leadership” in philanthropy might look like
  • A fundamental issue at the nexus of philanthropy and impact investing
  • Philanthropy and cultural narratives that promote exclusion (one of Ford’s five drivers of inequality)
  • What it means to build and share power through philanthropy

When I was writing my dissertation long-distance in 2007-08, I had a blog called “It Takes a Village to Write a Dissertation,” on which friends would volunteer to monitor a week’s worth of daily posts on my progress. That, and having a writing space 12 minutes from my apartment, were the only way I got the dissertation done. I’m hoping a similar magic can work here. So, you know, no pressure or anything, but I’m counting on you all, okay?

Let’s start with a question. Given Ford’s focus on disrupting the drivers of inequality, and the Philanthropy program’s charge to help move “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions,” where would you start? Who would you talk to, what would you read, where would you visit? I’ve done a lot of each of those things, but I’m looking for what I’ve missed.

Or, if you prefer, try this one: Where can Ford make the biggest contribution with our Philanthropy program given our focus? Keep in mind that grants will be made in the U.S. and will focus on philanthropy (as opposed to the broader nonprofit sector).

Thanks in advance for traveling this path together. Here’s to happy trails ahead!

The Long and Winding Road

November 13th, 2014

Coming off a great, dizzying six weeks on the speaking and conference circuit, some of which I’ve tracked here. Philanthropy New York, Philanthropy Ohio, the community foundations conference, Minnesota Council on Foundations, and more – for this ambivert, lots of socializing, plus downtime in Cleveland, Minnesota, Austin, and Maryland to recharge. Thanks to everyone who hosted me and came out for sessions.

Here’s what I’m taking away from my time on the road:

  • Everything old is new again. The talk of the community foundations conference was a panel in which a speaker showed the agenda from the same conference…in 1925 (!)…and it was…wait for it…practically the same agenda as 2014. It’s one thing to have perennial problems in philanthropy. It’s another to willfully or blithely ignore history. I had cause recently to revisit Joel Orosz’s classic “The Insider’s Guide to Grantmaking” from 2000 – it’s great! Full of humane thinking and practical insight. Should be required reading. Not to mentions perennials from GrantCraft, Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. My boss keeps telling me to read “The Golden Foundations” by Waldemar Nielsen. What’s on your philanthropy required-reading list? In grad school, back in the early 2000s before you could just store these on Google Docs, in my polisci doctoral program we had a CD-ROM (later a thumb drive) of summaries and outlines of classic texts prepared by students in years past that got passed down to the next class when it was time to study for qualifying exams. We could use something like that in philanthropy, open-sourced. Anyone up for jumping in with me? If it already exists, all the better – let’s build on it.
  • Going it alone is for suckers. At work, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of an ecosystem approach to strategy and capacity building. That message is really resonating with all kinds of audiences. Increasingly, anyone’s point of departure in the social-impact space has to be, what is my strategy in relation to the strategies of other actors in my space? This forces you to think about who those actors are. What capacity do I as a funder need to be a good partner with nonprofits, companies, government, intermediaries, etc.? I’m very conscious that my first point applies very well to my second, i.e., that this is not a new problem, and would welcome good sources on this.
  • Go small to go big. My talk at Minnesota Council on Foundations was about “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” I argued that funders should focus on playing their roles in the social ecosystem responsibly, meaning that they’re reliable, sensible, and accountable. By getting hold of those basics, “going small,” they’re better positioned to “go big” by leveraging their impact through collaboration. Again, this is the point of departure, not just an add-on or something it’d be nice to have.
  • What’s in your utility belt? Oh, Alec Baldwin. Ostracized from TV and print, and now heckled off the agenda of the Independent Sector conference. I mean, it’s not like he didn’t bring it on himself. He’s also been replaced as the pitchman for Capital One credit cards – for a few years, it was his gravelly voice that intoned, “What’s in your wallet?” A version of that question is relevant for funders – what tools are in your utility belt, and what are you using beyond the grant to achieve impact. This one’s definitely not a new question! But I see lots of interest on it out there, and it’s tied to the capacity question – what tools should you choose, and how do you prioritize those based on the ability you have on staff and can either build or buy? Research, advocacy, convening, advancing difficult dialogues, mission investing – the list goes on. So much opportunity, so little understanding of how to prioritize based on mission, need, and capacity.

For funders, how do you think about your nongrantmaking roles? Are you clear on what roles are a best fit for your in your ecosystem? What perennial questions do you find yourself revisiting?